Our country was founded through revolution. But the United States often seems more inclined to absorb change than embrace it.
Take last week's decision by the Pentagon to allow women in the armed forces to serve in combat roles. The announcement was described as "a watershed" and "monumental." It was also seen as being inevitable — more a matter of getting in step with the drumbeat of history than an attempt at social engineering.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff were reportedly unanimous in their support of the idea. Their recommendation was expected to have a number of consequences, including (among those that are intended) the opening of new job categories and the creation of greater opportunities for women to advance to senior levels of command. According to AnuBhagwati, a former Marine captain and executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, "Every time equality is recognized and meritocracy is enforced, it helps everyone, and it will professionalize the force."
There was a time, of course, when the idea of American women serving as combat infantry would have been considered ludicrous, if not downright impossible. Such reservations, though, were purely prejudicial and had little to do women's actual capacity to fight.
History, dating back to before the time of Christ, is rife with examples of women warriors. More recently, since 2000 A.D., women have been included in Israel's fighting force. And American women have found themselves in the thick of the action on any number of occasions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some observers have wishfully suggested that integrating women into combat units will help change the military's male-dominated culture. But, given the fact that men, in the persons of the Joint Chiefs, are the ones opening this door, it seems likely that their decision is based less on an expectation of change, than on a shared sense that the cultural status quo can be perpetuated, if not enhanced.
In the 1970s, when women were entering the workforce in ever-increasing numbers, earning positions for themselves in previously male-dominated fields, like the law and financial services, as well as on corporate boards, there were more than a few optimists who thought this might be the start of a kind of revolution from within.
Women were different, or so the thinking went. As they were more fully integrated into the workforce, America's ways of doing business couldn't help but change in ways that would be liberating not just for women but for everybody. Women would temper competition, create more forgiving workplaces and inspire innovation. Heck, they'd even instill better ethics.
Not only did women not bring an end to the rat race, they actually seemed to kick it up a notch or two. It turned out that the measure of a woman's effectiveness was not how much she could change a workplace, but how well she could fit in and, ultimately, beat men at their own games.
While women have shown an ability to excel in virtually any field, very little about American workplaces has truly changed. On average, we still get less vacation time than workers in other industrialized nations. Paternity leave is still a sore point with many employers. And women still continue to make less than men holding the same or comparable jobs.
What's more, the rage for productivity has meant that fewer workers are now expected to devote more time to their jobs — or else.
What's a boss, even a woman boss, not to like about this state of affairs?
Making combat available as a kind of career option to women begs another question, this one having to do with our continuing dependence on a volunteer fighting force.
The idea of making military service an elective choice came into being after the draft debacle during the war in Vietnam. The draft, under which military service was supposedly the compulsory duty of every young, red-blooded American male, turned out to be a sham, a game in which only some were called, and even fewer chosen.
Where, during World War II, the draft proved to be a great democratic leveler, stirring kids from all walks of life into a great martial stew, Vietnam exacerbated differences between races and classes through a system of deferments that blatantly favored the upwardly mobile. Rather than reform it, Americans opted instead for the voluntary scheme we have today.
The results of this decision have created a kind of restless muttering just below the surface of our national consciousness. Wars now are fought in our name, but at a comfortable social distance, with little or no shared sacrifice. Instead of a military that blurs American class differences, we have one that has created a warrior class of its own.
And so it follows that the ban on women in combat is finally being lifted. Whenever they have been given the chance, women have proven there's no field in which they can't succeed. Now that the military is one more option after high school, it seems unfair — and a waste of talent — not to give them a fighting chance. The Joint Chiefs aren't dumb. They can see that when it comes to making war, putting women in the line of fire won't change anything, except the gender of some of those we call heroes.
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