Earlier today, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the Pentagon is lifting the ban, which has prevented women from officially occupying most combat positions in the military. In the nineteen years since its enactment, the ban has limited the opportunities for women serving in the military, particularly in the Marine Corps and also the Army, which “currently excludes women from nearly 25 percent of active-duty roles,” as noted by a recent Washington Post article. By rescinding the ban, the Pentagon announces its intention to follow through with the plan it began last year of opening up areas within the military, which have been considered off-limits to women. To the relieved surprise of some and the chagrin of others, the lifting of the ban applies to all positions, though military commanders and officials will have three years in which to make cases for exceptions. There will probably be cases made, but at least, as one defense official explained, “The onus is going to be on them to justify why a woman can’t serve in a particular role” (Washington Post, Londono, 1/24/13). For those who have spent their lives working hard against patriarchal systems to prove themselves and fight for their right to serve, this reversal must come as a relief.
However, this policy change will not proceed without resistance as well as direct opposition. As I watched CNN’s Newsroom this afternoon, I was struck by this assertion: “Clearly men are stronger than women; you can’t fight biology…” Because I was just tuning in, I do not know whose words these are, but I’ll assume they were not the anchor’s. Unfortunately, “biology” has historically been used to justify the subordination and oppression of various groups of people. Thus, generically invoking “biology” does not constitute a legitimate argument, although I can already see hundreds of thousands nodding their heads in convicted affirmation. Oh dear. In reality, gender differences in physiological constitution is probably only a relevant factor in extremely specific positions. For instance, in a Reuters article, the authors explain, “An example of a physically demanding job that may be out of reach of women without significant upper body strength could be in front-line tanks, where soldiers need to lift and load heavy ammunition in confined spaces using mainly their arms.” Still others are concerned about ways in which the military would have to change, if (or rather when) it becomes more integrated. Concerns about privacy as well as gender-specific accommodations are being raised. Ultimately, I believe that the U.S. Department of Defense and the military branches have the capacity to problem-solve these and other issues and they should.
In this FoxNews.com article, Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., is quoted asserting, ” ‘The fact is that American women are already serving in harm’s way today all over the world and in every branch of our armed forces,’ he said in a statement. ‘Many have made the ultimate sacrifice, and our nation owes them a deep debt of gratitude.’ “ Particularly during the past decade, women have been fighting, living and dying alongside their male comrades. It is time for our country to recognize those sacrifices and support all of our troops.