By Rachel Brody |
More than 150 female service members have been killed in action. Over 11 percent of combat veterans in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom have been women. Two female service members have received the Bronze Star, the nation's third highest award for valor in combat.
The question isn't whether women should be allowed in combat but how the military should adapt to 21st century warfare which demands the presence—and sacrifice—of women on the battlefield.
Long before lifting the combat exclusion policy, the military made the decision to place women in combat-intensive roles in order to overcome challenges specific to counterinsurgency operations. For example, male service members are prohibited from looking at or speaking to Afghan women on patrols and from touching them at routine checkpoints to search for weapons and explosives—a challenge that poses a security risk that only female service members are equipped to address. The military has responded by creating Female Engagement Teams, which are attached to Army and Marine ground combat units, live in the same forward operating bases, and even conduct foot patrols, but are not formally assigned to these units. This is a bureaucratic maneuver that allows the military to access servicewomen's labor in combat situations without actually having to recognize them as combatants. Ironically, it's the military's own combat exclusion policy that military leadership has been forced to sidestep.
The Joint Chiefs voted unanimously to lift the ban because the military knows that the front lines of battle cannot be enforced where front lines do not exist. Decades of war have shown that a combat ban cannot shield women from an enemy that does not discriminate against its targets on the basis of gender, or any other factor. Warfare of the 21st century means women are as critical—and as vulnerable—in military operations as their male counterparts. The combat exclusion policy is a paternalistic policy rooted in an outdated conception of war, and its repeal signals the military's evolution to fit the wars it fights and the society it serves.
About Katie Miller Special Assistant at the Center for American Progress
Ariela Migdal Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project
Rachel Natelson Legal Director of the Service Women's Action Network
Loretta Sanchez Democratic Representative from California
Michael O'Hanlon Director of Research for Brookings's 21st Century Defense Initiative