Women warriors

Thousands of military jobs have opened up to women in recent years, but not those in the front-line combat units. That may soon change, however, as a result of a lawsuit brought late last year by four women veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt of Gaithersburg. Their complaint alleges that banning women from combat roles solely on the basis of their gender violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution and restricts women's opportunities for career advancement and higher earnings and pensions. It's time to end this discriminatory policy, which not only is unfair to military women who want to serve their country but also fails to acknowledge the changing reality of warfare.

Today, women make up 15 percent of America's 1.4 million active-duty service members, and some 200,000 have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. More than 130 women have died in those conflicts, while another 800 were wounded. In counter-insurgency campaigns, where the distinction between front lines and rear areas are all but meaningless, women have frequently found themselves in situations involving direct contact with the enemy, even though they were formally assigned to combat support roles. The Pentagon needs to face up to the fact that women are already in the direct line of fire and give them the credit for their service they have earned.

In the past, certain women have deliberately sought out combat assignments, though often they had to disguise themselves as men to conceal their identity; as many as several hundred women are thought to have served this way during the American Civil War. Women served in the two world wars of the last century in air defense units that shot down thousands of enemy fliers, and the former Soviet Union also used them as snipers and as combat pilots. But their service in these roles was largely forgotten after 1945.

Since then, the world's militaries have justified the exclusion of women from combat on a variety of grounds, including claims that women lack the necessary strength and stamina for such assignments and that their presence in male units would damage the vital esprit de corps commanders depend on to maintain unit cohesion. Many of these arguments echo ones previously used to justify the exclusion of African-Americans and gays from combat.

But in fact, there is no more evidence to suggest that integrating women into previously all-male units or occupations has had a negative impact on military effectiveness in Iraq and Afghanistan than there was to support the segregation of blacks during World War II. On the contrary, the most recent study by a Defense Department advisory panel that examined the issue found that women serving in those theaters today actually had a positive impact on their units' ability to accomplish their missions.

In 2012, the Pentagon began implementing plans to officially open 14,325 jobs previously closed to women as the result of changes to a 1994 policy that barred them from serving in direct ground combat units below the brigade level. But they are still excluded from assignments at the platoon and squad levels that form the tip of the military spear. Nor do they get credit for their combat experience that would help them to advance to the higher levels of command.

Since combat experience is effectively a prerequisite for promotion in a military culture that prizes performance on the battlefield, the current policy represents a huge glass ceiling for military women that denies the sacrifices and contributions they have made. Today the upper ranks of the American military are overwhelmingly male largely for just that reason.

As a matter of fairness, women ought to have the same opportunities as men to achieve high rank if they are equally qualified. For the military to cease discriminating solely on the basis of gender ought to be a logical consequence of its recognition of the roles women have been playing all along in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even if the military were completely integrated by gender, many women still probably wouldn't rush to join combat units. Others might not be able to meet the physical requirements for those posts. But that's no reason to exclude those who can. Ultimately, a policy based solely on ability would create a stronger military that is more reflective of the country's diversity and one in which fitness to serve is based on merit, not gender.

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