US military's last barrier to equality: ban on women in combat
An outdated Pentagon policy bars women from more than 220,000 US military positions. Yet the Army is gaming the restrictions by attaching women to combat units. The current policy is a legal fiction that not only degrades equality, but combat efficiency. It's high time we rescind it.
Champions of equal rights are celebrating the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT). Upon signing the bill into law last month, President Obama gave a passionate speech about justice, fairness, and equal rights for all, declaring that eliminating barriers to homosexuals' service in uniform increases national security. Supporters of repeal testified that integrating gay soldiers followed the path of ending military discrimination against African-Americans and women. They rejected the claim that units are most effective and cohesive if they are all alike, which has usually meant white male heterosexuals.Skip to next paragraph
But their winning arguments did not signal a final victory for equal opportunity and diversity in the US military. That's because American women are still restricted from serving in more than 220,000 positions. This is not due to any law passed by Congress but rather a longstanding Department of Defense policy that was last updated 17 years ago.
It's not just infantry positions – women are barred from serving in artillery, tanks, special forces, combat engineering, and other "ground combat" specialties. They also cannot serve in support positions (medical, logistics, administrative, intelligence, etc.) in any combat unit below the brigade level. And despite the realities of how they are employed every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, they cannot be "assigned" to combat support units that routinely "collocate" with ground combat units.
Women now make up 14.6 percent of the US military. Since 2001, more than 255,000 women have been deployed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where more than 120 have been killed and almost 700 wounded. Many women have earned combat awards for valor – including two Silver Stars. Women are killing the enemy, saving lives, and showing great bravery and valor in combat conditions. They are also crucial for searching local women and children for weapons at checkpoints and during raids, and engaging with the female population as part of counterinsurgency strategy.
An outdated, confusing technicality
Yet the Army is gaming the restrictions by assigning women to permissible positions, but attaching them to combat units to get the mission done. The current policy is a legal fiction, which not only degrades combat efficiency, effectiveness, and flexibility, but confuses military commanders.