WOMEN warriors have been celebrated for centuries. France has Joan of Arc, Britain has Boadicea, and Vietnam has the Trung sisters. The United States has, among others, those independent women who posed as men and fought in the Civil War.
These heroines have their counterparts in 2011. In the U.S. military, 14.6 percent of those who serve are female. Yet despite that history, and the fact that women today often take their chances on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, women in the U.S. military are limited by a restriction that reeks of the notion they are fragile flowers still clothed in crinoline petticoats. They cannot serve fully in combat - yet.
This long-standing ban isn't total, but it restricts thousands of women to serving in support units, sometimes for a specific mission with combat troops. In these jobs, any restrictions on combat become theoretical.
With front lines ill-defined and the enemy everywhere, women often find themselves in combat. Some 134 have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A greater role for women in combat seems inevitable. After submitting a proposal to Congress for review, the Navy recently announced that women officers soon would join the crews of submarines. Now a military advisory panel, composed of 32 current and former military officers, has recommended that women should be allowed to serve in combat in all branches.
The proposal is part of a draft report by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, which Congress set up two years ago. Its final report, expected in March, will go to President Obama and lawmakers for possible action.
The combat proposal deserves a positive response. The facts on the ground argue for it. The commission found little evidence that integrating women into previously closed units or occupations has damaged military cohesion or brought other ill effects. It recommends a phased-in approach.
Critics argue that the notion of women in combat is another blow to a military culture that recently was given the task of integrating gays. But military officers are promoting, not resisting, gender integration.
Joan of Arc had her detractors too. But women have shown for centuries that they can serve in combat with courage and distinction.