The United States officially ended its ban on women in combat Thursday, with a joint announcement by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey. As both men said, it was less a ground-breaking policy as a recognition of the facts that have existed on the ground for some time.
Panetta said of men and women in the military, "They're fighting and dying together, and the time has come for our policies to reflect that reality."
That is a healthy change, one good for the country, the military and for American women. If women wish to serve in armed forces - and the country does need their talent and energy - they should be afforded the same respect and pay as their males colleagues.
For all the talk about whether women possess the requisite physical strength, how gender roles might play out under stress and how cultural norms come into play in the filth and proximity of battlefield conditions, the simple truth is that American women have been serving in combat for some time. More than 150 U.S. military women have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. The only issue was whether women in the military would receive the same credit and prospects for career advancement as men. Thursday's announcement should settle that question.
Women have long served in the military. And even before that, female nurses accompanied and treated troops in some of the most dangerous and deadly parts of war zones. The threats were not always from bombs or bullets; until quite recently, disease took more lives in war than actual enemy action.
In part, though, Thursday's announcement also reflects this country's more recent wars. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the concept of a front line or a rear echelon is nonexistent. What with improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers and Benghazi-like attacks appearing out of nowhere, personnel ostensibly in the "rear" can be just as vulnerable as troops nominally in the field.
Plus, in recent years, more and more women have served in what have been deemed noncombat roles, but that have nonetheless put them in harm's way. The New York Times reported Dempsey told of going to Baghdad as a division commander in 2003 and climbing into a Humvee for the trip to the base. As Dempsey said, he asked the driver about "who he was and where he was from, and I slapped the turret gunner on the leg and I said, 'Who are you?' And she leaned down and said, 'I'm Amanda.'"
To say that gunner named Amanda was not in a combat role is ridiculous and demeaning. It is a fiction well put behind us. That she may now have the same chance at rank and advancement as her fellow soldiers is only fair.