Sisters In Arms

The Pentagon announced last week that it would rescind the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule for women as a huge first step towards removing other barriers to service for women in the military.  This move opens up thousands of jobs across all branches of service that had previously been closed to women.  The decision will increase the pools of available personnel to fill positions, thus lessening the overall levels of stress brought on by multiple deployments, at all levels of the military hierarchy and will give female troops a greater amount of experience from which to draw as they transition into leadership positions.

Rules that have kept women out of combat roles have become more and more obsolete in the past decade.  Gone are the days of linear warfare, clearly defined front lines and the concept of a rear echelon.  The asymmetrical environments of Iraq and Afghanistan will continue to be the most common operating environments in which the United States finds itself as we gird ourselves for the possibility of future involvement in the Middle East and Africa.  In these combat situations the lines between front and rear echelons are blurred.  The old Marine Corps adage that every Marine is a rifleman first has ceased to pertain solely to the USMC.  I experienced it myself as a Forward Observer in Iraq in 2004; no matter what your Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was, you trained to kick in doors and perform Infantry tasks.  Everybody trained to fight on the front lines, because the front lines were everywhere.  Thus far in Iraq and Afghanistan, 144 female troops have been killed and another 853 have been wounded.

This development has not been without it criticisms.  I have talked to some veterans and soldiers who worry that this will lead to a lowering of standards or separate standards for male and female troops, as is the case with physical fitness.  However, it must be remembered that separate standards exist with regards to physical fitness because of the physiological differences between men and women.  Men are, on average, stronger and faster than their female counterparts; it’s just the way that nature happened.  Qualifications for one or another MOS or job position, however, cannot be subject to such gender delineation because they are dependent upon combat readiness.  If the soldier cannot perform to the standards that allow him or her, and by extension the unit, to be combat ready he or she is not fit for that position and will be removed.  This is exactly how it is in Canada, which opened up combat roles for women in 1987 and still has no women serving in its elite anti-terrorism unit because none have thus far been able to meet the challenges of the job (though I have no doubt that will not remain the case forever).

Of course there is also the argument that this move will increase instances of sexual assault within a military that has already seen a sharp increase in such cases over the last couple of years.  This trend is truly despicable and every effort must be made to combat it.  But this is a cultural problem within the military and can only be addressed by engaging it in a proactive manner, not by denying female troops equal opportunity for their own good.  I submit that we cannot oppress a class of citizen in this country under guise of protecting them.  This was the same argument that was trotted out all too often during the civil rights movement, that segregation was necessary to keep blacks safe.  It was an ugly lie then, and it remains one today.

As a veteran I am proud to see the US military taking a step in the right direction, just as I was upon the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  I look forward to a time when the thought of such discrimination against the men and women who serve our country is considered backwards and archaic.  I hope that time is soon at hand.  But until that day and, forever more, I will stand in solidarity with my brothers and sisters in arms.

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