Allowing women to fight in ground combat is more of an ideological struggle than a physical one. Physically, it’s almost impossible for a woman to even meet the criteria that is required to fight in elite forces like the Navy seals and special ops. After that physical hurtle, there are the consequences of sex, both of an anatomical nature and the harassment variety. So once you’ve gotten over defecating in a bag and the threat of rape, there are the long term effects to consider, including perhaps facing lifetime infertility as a result of the strain.
Clearly, these are all extreme consequences of women serving in the infantry, but they are also abject realities. Once we can get past the horror of what our soldiers face on a daily basis, perhaps we can step away from gender and look at the actual history of women in combat and how Leon Panetta's recent decision really affects women’s past and future roles in the military.
Allowing women to fight in the infantry will give them the experience necessary to move up in the military chain of command. As noted in the New York Times, “In the military, serving in combat positions like the infantry remains crucial to career advancement. Women have long said that by not recognizing their real service, the military has unfairly held them back.”
This brings up two important arguments. First, women have been serving in infantry roles by engaging in direct fire at the front lines all along; they just haven’t been recognized. Secondly, now that women can attain this critical experience, they will not be held back from advancing. Statistically speaking, women have been sacrificing their life and limb for some time. More than 800 women have been wounded and 130 have died in Iraq and Afghanistan as of last year. If nothing else, by lifting the ban, Panetta is solidifying his own legacy as a military leader as much as he is paying homage to the legacies of fallen female soldiers.
The ultimate goal for the U.S. army is military effectiveness. By allowing an entirely new group of applicants into the pool, gender challenges aside, the hope is that those women who rise to the challenge will be have a positive effect on the outcome of battles on the front. As Representative Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.) asked, "The question here is whether this change will actually make our military better at operating in combat and killing the enemy, since that will be their job, too."
At the New Yorker, Dexter Filkins recounts his first experience with women in combat after an ambush by Iraqi soldiers:
“When it was over, the bodies of several Iraqi soldiers were lying in a ditch, and a group of female Marines were putting away their M16 rifles. I don’t know — I don’t think they knew — if their bullets had killed the Iraqis. (There were male Marines there, too.) I asked the inevitable question, which now seems embarrassing: What was it like being a woman in combat? And the women just shrugged, as if to say 'whatever.'”
The U.S. military has granted women a choice. It’s not a date with destiny. It’s not an unfair advantage. (If anything, they are coming from a position of disadvantage.) It’s a leveling of the playing field.
As former Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke out on behalf of women in the UK, “The rights of girls is moving to the top of the global issues agenda because young women are saying with rising resolve that they will no longer accept the rules and conventions imposed upon them by a male-dominated adult population.” Panetta's decision brings women’s issues to the front lines of both political and military engagement.