Women in the military break the penultimate barrier
The U.S. military is now an equal opportunity employer. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that all military jobs will be open to women, even dangerous combat roles from which they were previously blocked.
“They’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat,” Mr. Carter said at a Pentagon news conference announcing the decision Dec. 2. “They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force Para jumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.”
This change — which comes nearly 70 years after the U.S. military racially integrated — is long overdue. For too long, women have been kept from many combat roles and other duties simply because they were women, not because they couldn’t do the job.
The limitations never kept women out of harm’s way, of course. More than 160 women have died and more than 1,000 have been injured serving in the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the policy did hold women back when it came to climbing the ranks. Combat experience is an important factor in career advancement in the military.
The policy held the military back, as well, as Mr. Carter made clear.
“To succeed in our mission of national defense, we cannot afford to cut ourselves off from half the country’s talents and skills,” he said. “We have to take full advantage of every individual who can meet our standards.”
The emphasis on meeting standards by Mr. Carter was intentional. President Barack Obama also stressed military standards.
“As commander-in-chief, I know that this change, like others before it, will make our military even stronger,” he said. “Our armed forces will draw on an even wider pool of talent. Women who can meet the high standards required will have new opportunities to serve.”
Make no mistake: Women can meet those standards. The three women who graduated from the Army’s grueling Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga., are proof of that.
U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D., Ill., an Army helicopter pilot injured in Iraq in 2004, was pleased with Mr. Carter’s announcement. “I didn’t lose my legs in a bar fight,” she said. “Of course women can serve in combat.”
The decision followed a lengthy assessment by the military ordered by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in 2013 when he overturned a 1994 Pentagon rule barring women from combat units. After that assessment, only the Marine Corps sought exemptions to keep women from serving in some roles. Mr. Carter denied that request.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford, a Marine who argued for keeping women out of some combat roles, was noticeably absent during Mr. Carter’s announcement.
There have always been those who object when barriers fall, yet those barriers do, and must, continue to fall. The military will adapt. And, as President Obama said, it will be stronger for it.
But this decision opens up another issue that Americans need to consider: selective service. Though no American has been drafted into military service since the end of the Vietnam War, young men in the United States continue to be required by law to register for selective service when they turn 18 while young women are not.
When that requirement was challenged as discriminatory decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a male-only draft, based substantially on the fact that women were excluded from combat roles by statute and military policy. A Pentagon analysis published recently without comment noted that Carter’s decision “further alters the factual backdrop” of that ruling.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D., Mo., agrees. “There’s all kinds of ways women can serve, and there’s all kinds of ways men can serve,” she said. “And if, in fact, we were at a point where we were having a draft again, I would think both would and should serve.”
The Selective Service Act is being challenged again. On Dec. 8, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals heard a case brought by the National Coalition for Men.
The policy may change before any lawsuit is settled, though. Shortly after Carter’s announcement, a White House spokesman said a policy shift was under discussion, though Obama has not made his own views known.
It’s long past time for the United States to rethink forcing its citizens to register for a potential draft. Considerable evidence suggests that the nation is better served by an all-volunteer military — though had there been an active draft, it might have focused more national attention on the long-running wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
If selective service registration is going to remain a requirement, then it should not be a discriminatory one. The existing rationale for excluding women from this requirement no longer holds up. It would require an act of Congress to add women to the draft. Congress should act.
Reprinted from the St. Louis Post Dispatch
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