This past week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the Pentagon will drop its ban on women serving in combat. With this historic announcement, coming just a year and a half after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the Obama administration has once again sent a clear message that the United States is committed to fielding a military that reflects the fundamental American values of fairness and equal opportunity.
And just days into his second term, President Obama has reinforced his legacy; he will be remembered for transforming our armed forces more profoundly than any president since Harry Truman, who desegregated the U.S. military and provided a permanent place in the military for women.
By repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and opening all combat positions to women, the Obama administration has eliminated two of the most egregious examples of modern government-sanctioned discrimination. But these decisions were not based in political correctness or moral probity—dropping these unnecessary and discriminatory restrictions is in our national interest. With the overturning of these bans, the American military will no longer lose talented service members due to their gender or sexual orientation, and our armed forces will be stronger due to their diversity.
Yet these reforms did not come easily, nor are they without political risk, as President Clinton discovered when he tried to end the ban on gays in the military. The U.S. military is highly resistant to change, and to achieve these reforms, the Obama administration had to expend considerable political capital and assemble a wide alliance of committed experts and advocates to overcome significant resistance from some active and retired military officers as well as social conservatives in the Congress. Still, these changes will stand the test of history, and by more fully opening the force to minority groups, President Obama has put a commitment to equality, inclusive government, and military readiness at the heart of his legacy.
The Defense Department’s 1994 combat exclusion policy prohibits women from being assigned to ground combat units, a provision intended to keep women off the front lines of battle. Female service members are, however, routinely “attached” to combat units in a support role—on the Female Engagement Teams that accompany patrols in Afghanistan, as medics, mechanics, and interpreters.
But in the modern day this divide between “combat” and “support” roles has proved to be a distinction without a difference. In this era of irregular warfare, there are no front lines. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have claimed the lives of more than 100 American women and left another 800 wounded, have demonstrated that combat troops and supporting personnel are both at risk for attack or contact with the enemy. American women are already serving in combat and have done so admirably over the past decade.