Those opposed to female soldiers in combat haven't been looking very closely at the realities of modern warfare. In Iraq and Afghanistan, there are few traditional front lines, the enemy and local population are often hard to differentiate, and roadside bombs and insurgent ambushes are constant threats. In these war theaters, women soldiers have served exceptionally alongside their male counterparts and are routinely in mortal danger, confronting scenarios where they may engage the enemy in battle. In today's wars, limits on female soldiers in combat are more bureaucratic than real. It is time to wipe away the last vestiges of this discrimination. Gender should no longer be a barrier to formal combat assignments.
That conclusion was reached by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, a panel established by Congress and made up mostly of active and retired military personnel. In its draft report, the commission could not have been clearer in saying there should be no restrictions on female troops serving in combat units. The report says the structural barriers to women in combat roles are not justified and are unnecessarily discriminatory, preventing women from being considered for key positions and affecting promotions.
On the ground, even the military doesn't follow its own policies. In the Army and Marine Corps, where combat restrictions prevent women from serving in about 10 percent of posts, commanders apparently get around the rules by "attaching" the female troops whose skills they need to combat units without assigning them. At the highest ranks, military officials know what female troops have contributed and risked. "I'd be hard pressed to say that any woman who serves in Afghanistan today or who served in Iraq over the last few years did so without facing the same risks of their male counterparts," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in November.
Mullen's views are supported by the toll the wars have taken, including the 135 women who have died and the 746 more who have been injured as of Tuesday. The canard that Americans won't abide having women come home in body bags is no longer true, if it ever was.
The commission found that contrary to concerns about women negatively affecting unit cohesion, a Defense Department study found that a majority of focus group participants said women serving in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan had a positive impact on the mission. And it found that limits on women in ground combat units meant commanders were denied the ability to choose the best person for each mission.
The final report will be sent to lawmakers in the spring, reopening this contentious issue. Female troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have earned the right to demand that this country stop denying the realities of modern war, and their role in it.