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As one of his last acts as secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women in combat yesterday. The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously recommended the change this month. It’s overdue.
It won’t happen overnight: A few women could get combat assignments this year, but most will wait more than two years as military leaders study how to carry out the order. Plenty of women either won’t qualify for combat or will be better qualified to fill other roles.
Arguments against the change — that it will hurt unit cohesion or combat readiness — were heard before, in debates over the service of African-Americans, gays, and lesbians. Segregated units and “don’t ask, don’t tell” are history.
Female pilots have been flying combat missions since 1993. The Navy added women to submarine crews in 2010.
U.S. Rep Tammy Duckworth (D., Ill.) said “the inclusion of women in combat roles will make America safer and provide inspiration to women throughout our country.” The freshman lawmaker and former Army helicopter pilot lost both her legs after her chopper was shot down over Baghdad in 2004.
The ban on women on the front lines was not seriously questioned until the 20th century, and didn’t become official military policy until the 1990s. But warfare has changed. There are no front lines when your enemy can strike anywhere, at any time, with roadside bombs and suicide bombers.
Women have served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan for a decade. Nearly 300,000 women have been deployed to the two countries since 2001. More than 800 of them have been wounded, and more than 130 have died.
America needs to have the best people on the front lines, keeping us safe. Sometimes, that’s going to be a woman.
Preventing women from serving in combat positions erects barriers to their military careers. Combat experience long has been an unspoken requirement for advancement, especially in the Army, where 80 percent of generals have experience in combat operations.
About 237,000 positions in the military aren’t open to women. That discourages them from entering the Armed Forces. The goal, Mr. Panetta said in a statement, “is to ensure that the mission is met with the best-qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender.” Lifting the ban will encourage more talented women to join the service.
Defense officials say that some units may apply for exemptions from the order. But they should be granted sparingly.
The military will be better served if every unit is open to women and they are judged based on their ability to meet training requirements. Physical standards should neither be lowered to accommodate women, nor raised to exclude them artificially.
In a perfect world, none of our sons or daughters would be sent to war. The end of the ban on women in combat should be accompanied by an end to the requirement that young men still register for the nonexistent draft when they turn 18.
Even in our imperfect world, the decision to place Americans in danger should not be made lightly. But when that decision is made, the troops who defend freedom and equality should reflect the ideals they are fighting for.
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