The issue of women in combat has long been a thorny one for the military. While laws forbidding women from serving in combat were repealed 20 years ago, there have been Pentagon regulations that have essentially done the same thing since then, and women have been relegated to support roles rather than combat positions. But now, given the changing nature of combat, the Marine Corps has realized that is essentially a stupid policy to have in place. And so they've decided to finally take steps to involve women in combat roles by allowing them to volunteer for infantry training. While we won't be allowed to serve in frontline combat units just yet, this latest move is certainly a major step toward that.
For more than a year, the Marine Corps has been doing extensive research on additional jobs that could be opened to women, and, according to General Joseph Dunford, they've decided based on that to enroll some female volunteers in the Infantry Officers Course in Quantico, Virginia. He told the Military Times, "We are in the process right now of soliciting volunteers." While specifics have yet to be announced, there apparently is also a plan in the works to allow enlisted women to be assigned to Infantry Training Battalions as well. It's not known how many women total, either officer or enlisted, will be involved in this initial effort, since it's really up to how many people volunteer—though one imagines there are plenty of brave, capable women who've been waiting for just such an opportunity to open up.
This move is a big deal, and one that is sure to cause plenty of hand-wringing and pearl clutching from those opposed to the "weaker sex" fighting in combat. It's not clear for the moment what will happen to the women once they've completed the training. Details have apparently been finalized by Marine officials, but they won't be made public just yet—though one presumes women will be allowed in combat in infantry roles if they're going to the trouble to train them.
This change is one piece of a larger mission to expand the role of women in the Corps. In February, the Marines announced that company-grade officers and staff noncommissioned officers would be allowed to be assigned to a number of jobs that had previously been closed to women, though that did not include infantry or anything for which ground combat was a primary mission.
As part of the push to fully integrate women, the Corps is developing new "functional fitness tests" which are used to gauge how soldiers perform in various combat tasks. They're attempting to establish a gender-neutral approach to testing—which had previously been weighted based on a soldier's sex. As the Military Times puts it, the ramifications of this are huge:
This suggests that women wanting to serve in ground combat units will be given the shot to do so only if they can keep pace with their male counterparts. Standards would likely evaluate Marines not as women and men, but simply as infantrymen, tank crewmen or artillerymen, for example.
Whoa. Imagine that. Though it'd probably be better to call them simply infantrypersons and tank crew members, but baby steps. While this change has been the goal of many women who've long been fighting to be considered for positions that were closed to female soldiers, the shift appears to have finally come about after experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have redefined the way wars are being fought.
In most of the recent conflicts America has been involved in, there really has not been a traditional "frontline" that women can avoid in order to remain safe from harm and also to keep from tempting busy men with their amazingly sensual bodies. In many cases, women working in supporting roles have been in the mix with combat troops and just as much in danger as the men technically assigned to combat roles. So much so that 144 women have been killed in action, and 865 have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, as the thinking goes, if you're able to die for your country, you should be able to fight for it. Being allowed to rack up combat experience is also crucial for women who choose to make a career in the military because without it, it's very difficult to get promoted into the senior ranks.
Of course, this is a highly charged issue, and plenty of people oppose these changes. Elaine Donnelly, who runs an organization called the Center for Military Readiness and has basically made a career out of loudly proclaiming that women and gay people will destroy the institution of the American military, has objected to these changes—shocker! She said back in February,
Direct ground combat missions, with physical demands beyond the capability of almost all women, have not changed. If a soldier is wounded in battle—what we saw many times in Baghdad in 2003 or Fallujah in November 2004—a co-located support soldier may be the only person in a position to evacuate the wounded soldier on his own back. In this environment, women do not have an equal opportunity to survive, or to help fellow soldiers survive.
Ahh, yes, it's only fair to keep the wussy women of the Marines out of combat-related danger… Except, dear Elaine, maybe you missed the part about gender-neutral physical fitness assessments? People, that's women AND men, won't be allowed into these types of situation unless they've been deemed capable of performing in them. Of course, these arguments—Women and their weakness! Women and their emotions! Women and the sexy sex feelings and ill-advised chivalry they arouse in men!—are not new, and the list of them goes on and on. However, many of these same lines of "logic" were used to oppose gays serving openly in the military, and since that's been allowed, things have gone quite smoothly. So, one imagines the same exact thing will happen when women are finally given the opportunity to fill combat roles. There's even a very good chance that these trailblazing women won't cry all over their fellow infantrymen or menstruate on their guns.
USMC 4-star: Women to attend infantry school [Military Times]
Brass Ceiling Cracking? [Time]