Today, acting on the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that he is lifting the ban, in place since 1994, on women serving in combat roles in the United States military. One has to wonder how much longer this would have taken had we not had the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but the reality on the ground—that women have been fighting and dying alongside their male colleagues for the last decade—made this almost inevitable. What changes now is that women can serve in units like infantry that are designated as combat units.
I'm sure some conservatives are going to start hemming and hawing about how the lack of upper body strength among your average lady-type means this will accelerate the wussification of the U.S. military, and how it was just inevitable under Barack Obama's plan to destroy America. No doubt we'll hear that from Rush Limbaugh, who probably couldn't do a push-up if there was a capital gains tax cut waiting at the top of it.
When it comes to the physical differences between men and women, this doesn't seem like it ought to be an issue. Yes, on average men are bigger and stronger than women. But the military shouldn't accept average people, or if it does it ought to whip them into shape until they're above average, because right now the average American consumes four Big Gulps a day to wash down his six Taco Supremes. As it happens, the services have slightly different fitness standards for men and women (not radically different, but women have to do a few fewer push-ups, have a bit more time to complete a 1.5-mile run, etc.). Although I confess I don't know much about how the standards were developed, on their face I think it's kind of silly. Presumably the fitness standards exist because they have some kind of relationship to what a person might be called on to do in a combat situation. You'll need to pull yourself up over obstacles, or run from one place to another, and that will be the same for men and women.
So they ought to just make them the same for both genders. Equalizing the standards would mean that the women who make it will be drawn from a slightly smaller part of the female bell curve of physical capability than the men who do, but that's OK—they'll just be a more select group. Girls' participation in sports has increased in recent years, so I'm sure there are plenty more women who could meet those standards if they wanted to than there were a couple of decades ago, and nobody but the most troglodytic congressman thinks that women are constitutionally incapable of running around shooting people and blowing things up. Nevertheless, even after they open them up to both genders men are probably going to outnumber women for some time in the real elite units like Army Rangers and Navy SEALs. Which is also probably OK; change will come there too.
My guess is that the protestation that greets this move will be minimal and half-hearted. The same people who are likely to object already lost the argument about gays in the military, after all their talk about "unit cohesion" was exposed as nothing more than ridiculous fear and prejudice. So they probably know that having gone through that debate, they aren't going to win this one either.
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