American women will be officially allowed to serve in combat situations, according to an announcement Thursday by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. His decision was based on a recommendation from Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to a report in Time.
There are currently 230,000 on-the-ground assignments open to women. Military leaders will have until 2016 to decide if particular positions will remain off limits to women. Some positions can be filled immediately, but jobs considered elite or dangerous could take longer.
The move was applauded by the White House, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and equal-rights advocacy groups.
There was some opposition despite a survey last year supporting women. In a Quinnipiac University poll last February, support ran almost 3-to-1 in favor of allowing women in combat roles. A Christian conservative activist group, however, opposed the shift in policy.
“The point of the military is to protect our country,” Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, said in a statement to NBC News. “Anything that distracts from that is detrimental. Our military cannot continue to choose social experimentation and political correctness over combat readiness.”
Women have been serving unofficially in combat situations for a long time. This change will make them officially eligible for promotions and rank based on their combat-duty assignments and performance. Formerly all-male special-operations units, such as the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy SEALs, could soon be open to women. Forecasts project hundreds of thousands of jobs will be opened in the infantry and armor as well.
The decision by the Defense Department comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Service Women’s Action Network that challenged the 1994 exclusion policy preventing women from serving in the infantry, armor (tanks), and close-in artillery in addition to critical assignments, schools and other positions limiting their opportunities for promotion.
The response from Congress has been for the most part supportive. "It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations," Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Associated Press.(D-Mich.) told the
There has been some opposition from conservative Republicans. Rep.of California, a Marine combat veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, questioned whether the change would “actually make our military better at operating in combat and killing the enemy.”
“What needs to be explained is how this decision, when all is said and done, increases combat effectiveness rather than being a move done for political purposes,” Hunter said in a statement. An NBC News report cited a spokesman as telling them the congressman believes the decision was rushed, and that it was unclear how the Pentagon reached its decision.
Sen.(R-Ariz.), a former soldier and prisoner of war in Vietnam, announced his guarded support for Panetta’s decision. But he said Thursday that he wants to be sure “to make sure that the standards, particularly the physical standards, are met so that the combat efficiency of the units is not degraded.”
Should women be drafted?
The Selective Service System requires registration from all male citizens and legal aliens living in the US between the ages of 18 and 25. Right now women are exempt, but that could change in the future. If the ban on women in combat is lifted and all citizens must be treated as equal, does that mean women should be required to register in case a military draft is needed in a future crisis?
Constitution Daily, the blog of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, reveals that since the early 1900s there has been gradual progression in pace and scope for promotions in the military for women. There is one constant in the history of excluding women: they have never been formally allowed to serve in Army or Marine combat units—that is, those military units with the primary mission of engaging in direct hostile combat with an enemy. They can now fly planes or helicopters or serve on submarines, but not in infantry platoons.
Under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, Congress has explicit authority “to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.” The Constitution Daily blog elaborates:
"Still, like all powers given to the national legislature, allowing women in combat could not be used in a way that violated constitutional rights. For example, a rule barring racial minorities from military service clearly would not be valid now. [...]
"In 1981, in the case of Rostker v. Goldberg, the [Supreme] Court upheld the policy that limited the military draft to men. It did so primarily on the basis that the draft was to produce troops for combat duty, and women, of course, were excluded. The Court majority accepted that exclusion without question."
With the Defense Department’s new directive allowing women in to serve in combat duty, the exclusion no longer applies. A law requiring women to sign up for the draft could be destined for the Supreme Court.
Women warriors have a long tradition in history, literature, folklore and mythology, from Boudica the Celtic queen to Joan of Arc. The Dahomey people in western Africa established an all-female militia that served as royal bodyguards to their king. These and others form a long list of women warriors throughout history. And with the new Defense Department policy, American women of the 21st century will join their predecessors who bravely served their nations.
The transition for women, however, will not be seamless or without controversy, and there are still questions that remain unanswered. The military has been creating increasing opportunities for women for two primary reasons: their numbers, skills and talents are needed in an all-volunteer force; and the success of women’s advocacy groups in challenging gender and sexual orientation barriers in many sectors of American society has had its impact on the military, as lawsuits challenge women’s limited roles in the military.