Over the course of 2012, I wrote six different columns on the Pentagon’s combat exclusion rules. It was the topic, as I made an end of year list, that I wrote about more often than any other. Gender equality isn’t normally a topic I focus on, but national security and foreign policy are. The combat exclusion rules were the last remaining gender exclusion authorized by law, categorically. They were administratively impossible to apply, they denied women training and advancement opportunities, and they were, I believe, one of the reasons why the military has sexual abuse and rape problems (it treated them as second-class citizens).
But mostly it just annoyed me. Honestly, I don’t know a single woman who would want to serve in combat. But the exclusion, and its defenders, were so paternalistic that its existence was a sign of how conservative and reactionary we can be as a nation (not politically, just that whole “change” thing). The repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell hasn’t been simple, but it has been relatively easy. The earth did not fall.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Wednesday he will remove the ban on women in combat. There will be difficulties with these changes, I have no doubt. And it was clearly the litigation by women who have served, have won purple hearts, and who have been denied opportunities (and who also represented the more than 150 women who have died being in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan in all but formal legal designation) that finally moved the Pentagon. As I note in this column, this administration was not likely to be too fond of defending the rules.
But starting from a position where women are included, and the details are worked out, is a far better place for this nation and our security.
I don’t take my columns that personally, but this issue moved me. I heard from combat dads who hated the fact their daughters couldn’t follow in their footsteps. I heard from women who left the military because there was no other place to go. I heard from mothers who had lost their daughters, apparently NOT in combat.
In a few years, we will wonder how we had the exclusion for so long. We will have our first female Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs. But more importantly, young women will look to the military as a place for limitless opportunity. And that can’t be bad for them, or for the United States.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at email@example.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem.