The men did right. Last Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a man, joined with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, a man, to rescind the 1994 order barring women from combat. It came on the heels of a decision by the heads of the armed services, all men, that the “time had come” to have the rules reflect reality: Women have been in combat for a long time. President Obama, a man, expressed his support.
Why now? The pace of the Pentagon’s decision to lift all combat exclusion rules for women came faster than most close observers anticipated. That speed, after years of review and debate, is because of the women. And, surprisingly, the gay rights movement.
President Obama’s inaugural address last week spoke of equal rights as the “star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” His references to historic symbols of resistance for women, African-Americans, and gay Americans may well be, for the purposes of women in combat, in the wrong order. The women’s movement introduced the idea that there should be no barriers to their achievements. But it was the lessons learned from the “don’t ask, don’t tell” debates — first as Congress authorized lifting the policy in 2010, and then as the military decided whether to do so in 2011 — that set the stage for the Pentagon’s acceptance of female combat soldiers in 2013.
First, by ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” prohibitions, the Pentagon essentially undermined one of the historical arguments against female combat inclusion: troop cohesion. The notion that combat troops would lose a sense of unity and resolve if they served alongside openly gay men (the same argument used against African-American troop integration in 1948) was reviewed and rejected in a thorough assessment by the Pentagon. It would have been difficult for military leaders to revive it in order to deny formal combat designation for roles that women have, essentially, been already performing.
Second, the long feud with gay rights activists had, a senior Pentagon official told me, “exhausted” everyone. Sure, there are viable arguments against female combat exclusion, but being on the wrong side of history (and reality) takes its toll on any bureaucracy. After all, it would take some artful lawyering to explain why more that 150 women have died, in Panetta’s words, “in uniform” without having already seen combat. As US Representative Tammy Duckworth, a double amputee Iraq veteran, said, “Well, I didn’t lose my legs in a bar fight.”
Finally, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” decision was debated internally in 2011 with the threat of further court and congressional intervention hanging over the military if it didn’t end the policy. The Pentagon values — indeed, needs — its independence; it wants to make change on its own terms. This fact had a major impact on the Pentagon’s analysis of women in combat. It helped that after “don’t ask, don’t tell” ended in 2011, the sky did not fall. And then, by late 2012, four women put serious heat on the Pentagon to finally make a decision.
In November, Marine First Lieutenant Colleen Farrell, Marine Reserves Captain Zoe Bedell, Army Staff Sergeant Jennifer Hunt, and Air National Guard Major Mary Jennings Hegar filed a lawsuit. Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the advocacy group Service Women’s Action Network, they had all seen combat in either Iraq and Afghanistan. The exclusion rules, they argued, denied them the pay, training, access to post-combat health services, and opportunities for future advancement afforded their male equals.
The case brought by female plaintiffs who had served, been wounded, and awarded medals of valor meant that the Pentagon was soon facing the prospect of defending the exclusion rules in court. It would have been a terribly divisive process. The lessons learned from the “don’t ask, don’t tell” fight — especially the concern that a judge would force the Pentagon’s hand — contributed to last week’s decision.
There can be little doubt that Panetta’s strong leadership led to this moment. It would not have happened with a Pentagon head opposed to the change. The military brass has also shown a remarkable willingness to make the reforms work, clearly influenced by what it has seen in war. The fact the rules will be implemented just as combat duties are ending in Iraq and Afghanistan is probably not coincidental; this will allow the time to build gender-integrated troop strength without the threat of immediate deployment.
The chain of events that led to equal status for women in combat ended with the signatures of two men — Panetta and Dempsey — on a piece of paper. But it did not start with them. It started with women. And they gained a crucial set of allies through a movement that began in 1969 at a gay bar in New York called Stonewall.