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An outdated Pentagon policy bars women from more than 220,000 US military positions.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.

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.

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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An outdated, confusing technicality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.

Almost all the arguments against homosexuals serving openly in the military have been used to keep these 220,000 positions closed to women: Their presence will disrupt cohesion; there will be insurmountable privacy issues; there will be sexual tensions; they don't (as a class) have what it takes. Courts usually don't meddle in the business of military affairs, but last September, US District Court Judge Virginia Phillips decided such arguments were baseless for restrictions on homosex-uals in the military. The secretary of Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congress, and the president agreed. With this historic change, there are no more legitimate arguments for keeping qualified women out of any position in the military. Especially in a time of war, we need to pick the best "man" for every job, even if she is a woman.

Momentum for a shift

Momentum for this shift has been building.

During Mr. Obama's campaign, his national security spokesperson stated: "Women are already serving in combat [in Iraq and Afghanistan] and the current policy should be updated to reflect realities on the ground. Barack Obama would consult with military commanders to review the constraints that remain."

Last October, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen declared: "It's very important that we take a look at what we've learned in these wars and … whether we should evaluate those policies. Battle is nowhere and it is everywhere right now; everyone is in a combat zone. We've got to understand what that means and roll it into the future."

The future may come quickly. This month, a special commission of current and retired military officers established by Congress recommended that women should be allowed to serve fully in combat. The Pentagon will review the commission's final report in March, but Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates can start working to bring down the barriers now.

Before signing the repeal of DADT, Obama declared: "We are a nation that welcomes the service of every patriot. We are a nation that believes that all men and women are created equal. These are the ideals that generations have fought for. These are the ideals we uphold today."

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With the performance of women warriors in Iraq and Afghanistan as a backdrop and with the repeal of DADT fresh in their minds, Obama and Secretary Gates must affirm the commission's report and notify Congress that they will rescind the remaining restrictions on women in uniform.

Martha McSally is a retired Air Force colonel. She was the first woman to fly a fighter aircraft in combat and the first to command a fighter squadron. She is a professor of national security studies at the George C. Marshall Center in Garmisch, Germany. The views expressed here are her own.

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