Equal Opportunity Soldiers On

You know what repealing "don't ask, don't tell" did to change the military, right?  

Nothing, absolutely nothing. It acknowledged what was already true: lesbians and gay men were doing their jobs, just like everyone else. With the repeal, of course, thousands of people were freer to breathe easily, but nothing else changed.

That’s going to be the biggest consequence of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s announcement yesterday that women can serve in combat roles: nothing, absolutely nothing. Because women are already there, dying on the front lines. They’re already “attached” to combat units in roles that aren’t officially combat positions—maintaining equipment, taking fire after setting up camps as logistics officers, going on combat patrols as intelligence officers, and piloting helicopters and planes through combat zones (check out the plaintiffs' brief in the ACLU's lawsuit against the Department of Defense for the exclusion rule). They’ve gotten Purple Hearts, been hit by IEDs, and taken captive. The New York Times reports, “As of last year, more than 800 women had been wounded in the two wars and more than 130 had died.”

Some believe that the exclusion rule was about the "fact" that men are stronger than women. In general, of course, that is absolutely true. But we're talking in particular here. Just as some men should never serve in the military, some women are big, strong, and fearless enough to be the boots on the ground, willing and driven enough to work their bodies that hard. I dated a couple gals like that, and there are plenty who aren’t lesbians (gosh darn it!). Sure, there will be more men who are that strong, but the women who are qualified should get their chance to be as calm and ferocious as they want to be. But physicality hasn't really been the issue for a long time; women in the military, as I pointed out, are already serving alongside men. The issue has been our idea of womanhood and our idea of manhood. In that idea, "women" are fragile and in need of protection, while "men" are strong and do the protecting. Yeah, right. That kind of attitude leads to sexual harassment and assault. As a country, it's well past time to leave that troubling ideology behind. For punditry nerds, one of the best parts of this whole thing will be watching as longtime gender-separation crusader Elaine Donnelly’s head blows off. Donnelly, via her homegrown Center for Military Readiness, has long warned of service-wide gender apocalypse if women and gay folks serve (or serve openly) in the military. She doesn’t seem to be aware that there are a lot of modern combat-related jobs that don’t involve hand-to-hand combat, including artillery specialists, tank crews, radar operators, intelligence specialists, special forces medical officers, and a few others that show up in a quick once-over of the Pentagon’s list. 

There may be some skirmishing about who gets plum jobs, or whether every unit can or should be gender-integrated. Social psychology tells us that any new minority should make up at least 30 percent of a group—otherwise, the token outsiders are likely to be stigmatized and treated as representatives of their entire group. Thirty percent is generally the tipping point at which everyone's treated as an individual, not as The Black Who Can't [add stereotype here] or The Woman Who Always [add stereotype here]. Achieving that goal will have to be carefully thought through. 

There will be nasty skirmishing over whether women can advance into combat-command posts, with brutish and brutal sexual harassment as part of that battle. But you know what? Women in the military are already suffering sexual trauma at an appalling rate; ending it will simply get more urgent. Women who return from combat will have less difficulty trying to get Veterans Affairs to acknowledge their PTSD or other combat-related injuries since their realities will now be officially recognized. They’ll finally get credit for having been in combat, which is critical to advancing up the military hierarchy—and will have a shot at cracking what’s called the "brass ceiling.” All those military dads who are proud of their daughters in arms will now get to be even prouder.

Women will still have to be qualified for the particular job to which they apply; not every woman will be able to take up every role. But it’s about time that the nation’s largest employer figured out that discriminating against women categorically—instead of selecting the best person for the job, individually—was ridiculous.

So kids, what barrier should we knock down next? I know! Let's hire a female commander-in-chief.

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