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Up In Arms

News & Features | March 25, 2013

On January 23rd of this year, United State defense secretary Leon E. Panetta repealed the ban on women serving in combat positions in the military. This was a milestone for the U.S., which joined dozens of other countries that allow women in their combat forces. This specific ban dates back to 1994 when the Pentagon ruled that women could not serve in combat roles such as the artillery, armor, or infantry.

The reality is that women have been unofficially serving in combat roles for a long time. Women have been intelligence officers, lead combat medics, and accompanied infantry troops. They have been allowed to serve as machine gunners on specific types of vehicles, and shoot long-range artillery, but not short range. In all these positions women have fallen under the line of fire. Over 800 women have been injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and over 150 have been killed.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have especially lead to more women in combat instances than ever before. In wars without a specific frontline, fought in alleys and public spaces, it is hard to define when something becomes “combat.” Loopholes have been found when more able-bodied people are needed on the ground: women were frequently listed as “attached” to a unit on paper or listed in a different non-combatant unit all together rather than being “assigned.” Additionally, in these wars women have proved particularly useful in searching Afghan and Iraqi women for weapons, a duty that the civilians would have seen as inappropriate for a man to conduct.

The problem with these unofficial combatant roles is that women, until now, have not been able to advance in the military ranks as far as men. Despite great acts of valor and medals won, a woman couldn’t receive higher positions or training without “combat experience.” This created a very solid glass ceiling for women in the military, making it impossible for women’s careers to advance as far as those of their male comrades.

The January 3rd decision to lift this ban was seen as a great victory for many women’s rights groups. The decision did not require support from Congress or the White House. In fact, some White House staff expressed surprise at the decision, indicating that  the initiative likely didn’t undergo a thorough review in the executive branch before being passed. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, stated: “the time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service.”

But why is the time now? What has taken so long for women to be officially allowed in combat roles when women have long since found their place in what were once male-dominated fields such as law or medicine?

One argument is that Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy hindered women as well as homosexuals in the military. The same problems were foreseen in the inclusion of both groups into the military: there was talk of the complications that would arise from possible romantic relationships amongst soldiers in psychological and physical health capacities.  Women could not be allowed in combat until homosexuals were allowed in combat. Therefore, when Obama repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in July of 2011, he showed that he considered these arguments invalid, and perhaps paved the way for women to be allowed to the front lines.

Another explanation for the decision’s timing is the large number of impending lawsuits.  The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit in November 2012 against the ban. The case was on behalf of four women who had been in combat situations but were not permitted apply for combat leadership positions because  they had technically never had combat roles. Other court cases like this were underway and putting large pressure on the federal government to lift the ban.

Additionally, women are and have been viewed as equal in most other parts of the military for years, and can advance their careers in many branches that are not combative. Last year, Ann E. Dunwoody became the first woman to achieve the highest rank in today’s military: a four-star Army general. A freshman at West Point Military Academy, when asked if she ever faced any difficulties as a woman at a military facility responded: “Definitely not—West Point does a great job not allowing any unfair discrimination or unfair treatment based on sex.” She explained that, in her experience, the main qualms that had existed about women being in combat zones were questions of physical strength.  She explained: “There’s a lot of stories of females in the front line as medics not getting the credit they deserve, and they deserve the credit, but you have to be able to carry your own weight and drag a body back to the field and I do think that’s important.”

The growing reality on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated that women were needed and could act in combat positions. And by and large the lifting of the ban has been met with good reception from civilians and military personnel alike. Women can finally be listed as “Assigned” to a combat position. And combat career opportunities have finally opened up, shattering one more glass ceiling.