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at evolving social values leads to some kind of political uproar; it was a deeply divided Congress, for example, that repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell.”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.
Commanders still have some latitude; the new rules give them the authority to exclude all women from some units. But as explained on Thursday by General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the new rules put the onus on the military to defend policies or practices that exclude women. “We have never had that conversation before,” he said.
Implementation of the new combat rules will occur over time. The winding down of US military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan means that any changes will be gradual. Meanwhile, the question of whether young women will be required to register for a potential draft, as young men are, remains unanswered; for now, the Pentagon seems content to punt on that decision — wisely concluding that it’s best to let the changes in combat policy sink in first.
In the meantime, the greatest practical effect of the new rules is to give more women the chance to attain the highest levels of military rank, for which formal combat experience can be an important credential. And, over time, more high-ranking female officers can be deeply involved in decisions about whether to send women — and men — to war.