The following editorial appeared recently in the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer:
"Significant numbers of women have been injured or killed in these conflicts over the last 11-plus years. I would guess their families would tell you those women were 'in combat.'" — Joyce Wessel Raezor, National Military Family Association
Women have been fighting and dying in wars since long before Queen Boudica led ancient Brits into battle against Roman legions. Many an army throughout history has desperately needed every able-bodied fighter, regardless of whether the able body in question was male or female.
The United States is not in such dire straits. But as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta observed, "Our military is more capable, and our force is more powerful, when we use all of the great diverse strengths of the American people."
Among those strengths, Washington sources revealed this week, will be some among the 200,000 women on active duty in the U.S. armed services. On the unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, combat roles will be incrementally opened to women, ending a 19-year ban.
The 1994 policy is one whose lines, like the lines of battle, have been thoroughly blurred over the last decade-plus by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Women attached to battalions to which they are not formally assigned provide medical aid or fly helicopters in combat situations; the ever-present threat of insurgency means lethal danger anywhere. Women have been awarded Purple Hearts for severe, sometimes disabling wounds; they have served multiple deployments; they have suffered post-traumatic stress; 152 have been killed while on active duty.
Among the reasons women have sought access to this deadliest of all military duties is that their official exclusion from combat has closed off traditional avenues of career advancement and promotion.
Another is that they are willing, like their male counterparts, to fight and if necessary die for their country.
It will not be a quick transition, nor should it. High-ranking officers in each service branch will have about three years to assess whether some of the most physically demanding specialized roles, such as elite commando units, should remain male-only. The Joint Chiefs reportedly have identified the three guiding principles of the transition as maintaining an effective fighting force; preserving combat readiness above all else; and developing a process that gives all members of service the best chance to succeed.
The transition of women into combat roles will demand the guidance, experience and expertise of seasoned combat veterans. The situations these soldiers must be prepared to face are not hypothetical, and a theater of war is not a social laboratory.
Panetta said, and the Joint Chiefs apparently agree, that women in combat will help the United States win wars. That has to be the bottom line.