Hidden from public view, a cultural civil war is being waged within the United States military. The scope of this struggle was momentarily illuminated during the repeal of the armed forces’ homophobic “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which sought to prevent any service members from openly declaring a non-heterosexual orientation. What is perhaps less understood is how the very same forces that attempted to block the repeal on moral grounds continue to perpetuate a culture of male domination that results in regulated discrimination towards females.
Currently, a ban exists that restricts women from serving in jobs that experience direct combat with enemy forces. Even if this ban sounds chivalrous or sensible to one on paper, its logic is still fatally flawed because women are fighting in combat right now. What the ban actually accomplishes is denying women the opportunity to pursue careers in the “Combat Arms” branches such as the Infantry, Armor, and Field Artillery.
Supporters of this gender ban claim it is a fair distinction based on unit effectiveness or the female gender’s physical limitations. Megan MacKenzie astutely refutes any such claim in her recent Foreign Affairs article, “Let Women Fight.” As MacKenzie points out, asymmetric warfare is increasingly blurring the distinction between regular and irregular warfare, forcing women into combat roles regardless of the military regulations on the books. An early and memorable example of this was the story of Private Jessica Lynch, a logistics soldier who was captured by enemy forces in Iraq while resupplying a front-line unit.
The last major change to the rule occurred in 1993, when portions of the ban were lifted. Since then, women have gone on to command carrier strike groups and aircraft wings in the Navy and Air Force without a single detrimental change in unit performance. Today, while 32 percent of the jobs in the Army and 34 percent of those in the Marine Corps are closed to females, only 1 percent of jobs in the Air Force are now off-limits to women.
Despite this progress, the remaining provisions of the ban are more than enough to ensure a glass ceiling for women. Front line service is a prerequisite for promotion to the higher echelons of the military. With the ban in place, women cannot command combat battalions, brigades, or divisions, and are therefore severely limited in promotion to general officer or sergeant major. Like a twentieth-century corporation in which the board of directors and C-Suite are off-limits to women, this ban senselessly turns away qualified female service members from lending their talent to the military’s leadership. Moreover, to young men in the military, this policy sends a dark subliminal message: a woman’s place in society is to support men. Unsurprisingly, several female service members have recently sued the Department of Defense on the grounds that the ban limits their careers.
In a sign of progress, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently raised the possibility of lifting the combat ban. In the meantime, the Army and Marines are experimenting with integrating women into traditionally male-only jobs in combat units. Also worth noting, more than 14,000 jobs that were reserved for men were opened to women this year. Even so, combat-banned jobs and their associated opportunities remain too far out of reach. Across the board, superficial changes such as these are unlikely to impart meaningful change as long as women’s careers are still systematically discriminated against.
The combat ban must be ended, immediately and in full, and women must be granted the equal opportunity to pursue all career paths within the armed forces. To end this ban, Congress should pass the “Gender Equality in Combat Act,” sponsored by Senator Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY). Removing the ban will lead to more female commanders and will allow the military to tap into a far broader base of leadership talent, all while chipping away at the wider subordination of women in our forces. Unless the military begins to view women as equals in the workplace and under the law, women will continue to be pushed to the front lines of our battles—and the rearguard of their professions.