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Women in combat: the latest career option

  • 3 min to read
The Starting Five, 2/3/2015


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


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


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


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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