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.
Giving women the opportunity to serve equally on the battlefield will require the same kind of effort that brought about the changes in the military’s handling of sexual-assault claims. The rules announced by Panetta came after tremendous pressure from Congress. In particular, Massachusetts Representative Niki Tsongas, a Democrat, and Ohio Representative Mike Turner, a Republican, led a bipartisan effort as co-chairs of the Caucus on Military Sexual Assault.
They pushed the military to require that higher officers be the ones to make the decisions on whether to pursue sexual-assault claims. Formerly, it was the most junior commander in the accuser’s chain of command who determined whether a case would go forward. Those officers tended not only to be inexperienced, but not objective. Often, they were the direct supervisor of both the victim and the accused. In 2011, 68 percent of “actionable” assaults, those that were determined to be substantiated, were still not prosecuted in military courts because of low-level commanders’ use of their discretion. Now, such decisions will be made at the colonel or Navy captain level, a major elevation in experience, seniority, and objectivity.
While the new procedures are important, they are also low-hanging fruit. From the looks of it, the Pentagon finally made the rather basic determination that a junior officer, most likely male, should no longer be given the sole discretion to determine whether one of his subordinates, most likely male, was guilty of an assault on another of his subordinates, most likely female. It is a good start, but not exactly brilliant.
We are the most civilized nation in the world that still formally excludes women from combat. “Formally” is the operative word. Women are so close to the battle lines now that 144 female soldiers have been killed while deployed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over a quarter of a million women have served in those wars. After a recent review, the Pentagon opened up 14,000 new combat-related jobs to females, but still kept a quarter of a million slots out of reach. Gender-neutral physical requirements should be the sole factor in determining qualifications for such jobs. And because combat duty is often the key to advancement, it should be no wonder that while women make up 14 percent of active-duty military, they represent only 7 percent of flagged officers.
Those who have never served might assume that placing women so close to men in combat is actually what is leading to an increase in sexual violence. That’s an easy, blame-the-victim, excuse. Perhaps the explanation for the fact that assaults have increased steadily since 2006 is the stress of 10 years of war or the lowering of recruitment standards to fill the ranks without a draft. No other country shows evidence of a direct correlation between combat proximity and sexual assault.
The combat exclusion rules create a ranking system that is based not on skill, experience, or physical aptitude. There are consequences of such an attitude for any institution. We don’t know if lifting the combat exclusion rules would lesson the prevalence of sexual assaults. The Pentagon had a chance to test that theory and passed it up. Maybe, one day, they will have combat rules as “inclusive” as their new regulations on sexual assault.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.