A panel of military experts made a recommendation that’s been a long time coming: they suggested that women be able to serve in combat units, from which they are currently prohibited. If implemented, this change would be another radical measure to promote equality in the military, along with the recent repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Women currently make up around 14 percent of the armed services, but cannot serve in any unit smaller than a brigade whose primary mission is direct combat on the ground. This means that women have been relegated to combat support roles, even though some female Marines in Afghanistan have, through special missions which targeted women in remote rural regions, come close to engaging fully in combat roles.
The report says that current restrictions on women in combat prevent women from performing about 10 percent of army and Marine occupational specialties, creating a significant barrier to career advancement. The panel suggested that the prohibition be erased “to create a level playing field for all qualified service members.” They added that because of policies like these, “minorities and women still lag behind white men in terms of number of military leadership positions.”
Women have been excluded from combat for a variety of reasons, most of which are fairly inane. Part of the fear is that public opinion would not tolerate large numbers of female deaths, and others suggest that having women in small combat groups would ruin group cohesion, an argument that was also leveled against gays. Although stamina and strength are cited as other barriers to full female participation in the armed forces, the panel said in their report that these were proven to be unimportant concerns. In fact, they said, referencing another study, “women serving in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan have had a positive impact on mission accomplishment.”
One thing is clear: women already contribute hugely to the success of the armed forces, and including them in combat units can only open up opportunities for them. The concerns about barriers to their advancement because of these limitations is real, and comprises a legitimate source of complaint for women who are prevented from accessing the same opportunities for promotions and advancement as their male peers. This report is a clear move in the right direction, and the next challenge will be for the Department of Defense to begin implementing their recommendations.
Photo from the Department of Defense.