Panetta lifts Pentagon ban on women serving in direct combat

Dan Foster has the right idea. No more excuses, ladies. It’s time.

Just this morning I was thinking that abortion and gay marriage had gotten a bit stale as fodder for really nasty, bitter culture-war bloodsport. Luckily, Obama and Leon Panetta are here to keep things interesting.

The groundbreaking move recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units. Panetta’s decision gives the military services until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to women

Panetta’s move expands the Pentagon’s action nearly a year ago to open about 14,500 combat positions to women, nearly all of them in the Army. This decision could open more than 230,000 jobs, many in Army and Marine infantry units, to women.

In recent years the necessities of war propelled women into jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers that were sometimes attached — but not formally assigned — to units on the front lines.

The AP says Panetta’s order will involve “allowing women to seek the combat positions,” which isn’t remotely the same as ordering women who are already in the service to the front lines. Sounds like the opportunity will be there for women soldiers if and when they want it — although as women serving in the infantry becomes more common, it’s bound to create peer pressure on women troops who don’t necessarily want to go to the front but feel obliged to. Oh well. CNN has more on how this differs from the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In short, there’s no “special exemption” available to a unit that concludes it can’t/won’t integrate gay troops:

The Army and Marine Corps, especially, will be examining physical standards and gender-neutral accommodations within combat units. Every 90 days, the service chiefs will have to report back on their progress…

[The policy] is a marked difference from the way the military ended the exclusion of gays serving openly, or “don’t ask don’t tell.” In that case, there were no stipulations attached to openly gay service members. There was no staggered approach that integrated openly gay troops into units. It was instead done all at once, across the board.

A senior Defense official explained the Pentagon’s reasoning behind the different approach: “You’re talking about personal choice of behavior vs. physical capability. And they were already in the units. If you take a unit that’s never had women before, that’s quite a culture change.”

Women already serve in combat support roles and have been killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan but this is the first time they’ll be placed intentionally in the line of enemy fire. It was a fait accompli, though. Ever since DADT was repealed, activists had eyed this as the next frontier in equality inside the military. The Pentagon bowed to pressure early last year by allowing women troops to serve in non-combat roles as part of battalions, which put them closer to the front lines. More than one poll has showed majority support for letting women serve in combat, and other allied militaries, like Australia and the IDF, already make some combat roles available to women. The question wasn’t whether this might happen, it’s how broad the new policy would end up being. Volunteers only or mandatory service for all women who are fit to serve on the front lines? Special Ops duties too or are the physical requirements too onerous? Israel has already lowered its standards for female combat troops, although allegedly that has less to do with physical challenges than with women wanting to serve in more tech-heavy roles.

Not all vets support the idea, of course. Here’s a piece written last year by a former infantry officer making the case against women infantry on grounds that close combat will simply prove too brutal for many of them; here’s another by a female officer who warns that long duty in the field is likely to prove too physically grueling. The X factor at the moment is what Chuck Hagel thinks, but I doubt we’ll ever really know: Even if he disagrees with the policy change, there’s no earthly way he didn’t already sign onto it behind closed doors with Obama as a concession to Democrats, who are giddy about the change and lukewarm about his nomination. He’ll rubber-stamp it whether he wants to or not.

Exit question for opponents of the Iraq and/or Afghanistan wars: How excited are you to have a giant new pool of soldiers available to make future wars that much more feasible?

Update: Panetta gets the coveted thumbs up from Kelly Ayotte, whose brand as a hawkish Republican woman senator will provide O with some political cover.