The Monitor's View

Women in combat: Why that's so yesterday

The military's decision to allow women in almost every combat role isn't surprising at a deeper level. Humans have been more rapidly overcoming barriers to physical limitations. Now we just expect it.

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    Two female US Marines greet children during a patrol in Afghanistan in 2010. They were part of Regimental Combat Team 2, whose mission was to conduct counterinsurgency operations.
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On Thursday, the Pentagon admitted a reality already quite evident from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars: Women can be able partners with men in combat roles.

Officially allowing women into all combat areas may take until 2016 and could still come with minor qualifiers. Still, to many, the decision is not all that surprising. That fact alone points to a little-acknowledged trend in recent history: Humans have accelerated the pace of overcoming barriers to physical limitations – and not just bodily limits.

Women especially stand out in their rapid rise above the gender stereotype of frailty. Much of the credit goes to the federal Title IX law in 1972 that requires equal spending on sports for girls in public schools. Substantial upper body strength is now possible for many women if they start sports early enough.

But also helpful has been an increasing number of female role models with physical agility on par with that of men – from Annie Oakley to Amelia Earhart to Billie Jean King to today’s many star athletes. More films, too, depict tough female heros. Think Sigourney Weaver in “Alien” or Demi Moore in “G.I. Jane.”

“Over the course of the past century, feminism has pushed women to do things once considered against their nature – first enter the workforce as singles, then continue to work while married, then work even with small children at home,” writes Hanna Rosin in her 2012 book, “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women.”

Breaching material limits is now the expected norm in many areas, especially technology and sports. 

When nearly 6 billion people have access to cellphones and can instantly talk to each other, “There is no longer any time, distance, or place limiting human communications,” writes David Houle, author of a new book, “Entering the Shift Age.”

When NASA can reveal detailed images of Mars’ surface, the planets are that much closer. Skype brings distant friends and family together in cyberspace. New cars may soon be driverless, changing concepts of time and distance.

“Technology expands human capabilities, giving us power beyond our physical bodies to make things, go places, and discover new realities,” writes Cecily Sommers of The Push Institute in her new book, “Think Like a Futurist.”

In sports, breaking records, especially during the Olympics, is now the norm. With better mental and physical training techniques, athletes can more quickly surpass yesterday’s Babe Ruths, Roger Bannisters, and Bob Beamons – athletes once thought to have reached the limits of human capacity. Even racing animals, such as thoroughbred horses, are now pushed to new limits.

The Pentagon’s decision to allow women in combat is a chance to reflect on how humans view life less in terms of material restraints and more in the limitless abilities of mental agility.

Women in combat with men? That’s so like climbing Mt. Everest. Show us more.

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