Allowing female service members in combat improves military, equal rights

When the Department of Defense announced lifting the ban on female service members in combat roles last week, supporters of women’s rights rightfully celebrated the defeat of one of the last bastions of open gender discrimination in this country. Like the abolition of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in 2011, the inclusion of women in combat roles is more than just a civil rights victory: It’s the right thing to do to make our military better. 

While historic, the announcement of outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta simply recognized the honorable service of the approximately 280,000 women who have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, 146 of whom were killed.

Despite the fact that women were banned from frontline combat roles, the reality is that women have been effectively involved in combat for years in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  They are vulnerable to the same danger, experience the same living conditions and go unshowered for just as long as their male counterparts.

Those opposed to this measure point to the practical challenges of frontline combat. Jerry Boykin, a retired general who served and commanded the U.S. Army Delta Force, wrote in a press release that the problem has nothing to do with “courage or capabilities,” but with hygiene. Boykin, now the executive president of the Family Research Council, wrote that soldiers’ “living conditions are primal in many situations with no privacy for personal hygiene or normal functions,” later adding that commanders will be burdened with providing “some separation of the genders” while also protecting the lives of their troops.

We do not claim to critique Boykin’s first-hand experience of special forces missions, but we do feel right in criticizing a line of logic that argues womens’ hygiene issues are such an insurmountable challenge to the military that it is better off without them. That is patently, demonstrably ridiculous. Women already serve in combat situations and have proven the ability to function under conditions where privacy doesn’t exist.

The pressure should still be on the military to work more forcefully in the treatment of women in the military. Last week’s victory doesn’t help the roughly 50 percent of female service members who reported being sexually harassed in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to research by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The prevalence of sexual assault and rape in the military is dishonorable, but it is an issue that can’t be solved by a simple public announcement or policy change.

Women have been fighting for equal rights in this country for over a century, and in most aspects of our society they are given a fair chance to pursue their careers. But for that to happen, culture had to change: what a woman could do, could think, could say, could wear — these issues have taken generations to shift, and still are shifting. The military will not change overnight, and many will not easily lose the perception that being a man is a fundamental component to being a combat soldier.

While individuals such as Boykin may still object, they’ve already lost; they can only sit back and watch the military change for the better. We hope they watch closely.