Last week, Pentagon officials got a few steps closer to recognizing what those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have known for years: servicewomen fight on the battlefield alongside their male counterparts, despite a longstanding rule barring them from being assigned to units that engage in direct ground combat. The Defense Department didn’t altogether scrap the rules officially banning women from being assigned to such units, but it did loosen them. Under the new rules, women will be allowed to serve in some jobs — though not infantry, armor, or special operations forces — at the battalion level — that is, closer to combat than had previously been permitted. To the Pentagon’s credit, it scrapped the infamous ban on women serving in units that are physically “co-located” with ground combat units, recognizing that the policy has become “irrelevant” on the modern battlefield. Now, 14,000 new jobs and assignment opportunities are open to servicewomen, though 238,000 positions still remain closed across all the armed services.
While the shifts in policy may seem like small steps, they represent a welcome change — one that recognizes the reality that women are already serving in combat. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars clearly demonstrated there is no “front line.” Everyone serving is exposed to danger. And in the modern military, commanders need the flexibility to select the best servicemember for any assignment, regardless of artificial barriers like sex. This is why commanders have been dealing with the wholesale exclusion of women from combat units by “attaching,” rather than “assigning” women to those units when they need them. This practice caused confusion and is problematic because it means that the women serving with the unit in combat in some cases have not trained with that unit and do not have the same administrative command.
Besides being cumbersome, confusing, and dangerous, the so-called combat exclusion policy is outdated and harmful. It is rooted in archaic stereotypes about women’s capacities and their role as the center of the family, and does not reflect the courageous work that women currently perform in the military. The Constitution requires the armed services to evaluate each candidate for service, irrespective of sex.
For decades, the ACLU has been arguing, in courts and in Washington, that the artificial exclusion of women from military service assignments based solely on their sex is unconstitutional, irrational, discriminatory, and a bad idea. While we applaud the Department of Defense’s moves to limit the reach of this outdated policy, we urge it to go further and eliminate these exclusionary, cumbersome rules once and for all.