With all the focus on the “war on women,” the issue of war and women isn’t getting its share of attention. On Monday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced new rules to combat sexual assaults in the military. Over 3,000 alleged assaults are reported annually, but the Pentagon now admits that the actual number of incidents is probably closer to 19,000 due to systemic underreporting. This acknowledgment marks a cultural shift to protect women in the hopes that the military can recruit, retain, and promote them to the highest levels of command.
There is, however, one persistent barrier to all this “equal status” talk: Changing the culture of the military toward women requires more than amending the sexual assault procedures. It means changing the combat exclusion rules. All the good words about inclusiveness and gender protection mask a more fundamental division: Women are underrepresented in the highest ranks not because of pervasive sexual assault, but because they are still formally excluded from the most honored role of all, that of combat soldier.