The most striking aspect of the Pentagon’s decision to lift a 1994 ban on combat duty for women last week was the lack of any substantive opposition in Congress. Normally, any policy change that hints at evolving social values leads to some kind of political uproar; it was a deeply divided Congress, for example, that repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell.” No comparable controversy erupted last week, as such Republicans as Senator John McCain embraced the change. That’s partly because the new policy reflects the actual practice in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also gives belated acknowledgment to the over 150 women who have died in uniform since 2001. They did, in fact, perish in combat.
In retrospect, the White House, which appears to have been taken by surprise by the timing of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s decision, was unnecessarily fearful of addressing the issue. All the service chiefs came to the conclusion some time ago that, in wars with no clear battle lines, the formal exclusion of women was impossible to enforce.