If every war offers its own lessons, the first wars of the 21st century teach us that female soldiers are an integral part of our nation's fighting forces and are highly capable, no matter how dangerous the job. The wars of Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that G.I. Jane has arrived.
As recent stories in the New York Times detail, the military is way ahead of policymakers on realizing the contributions women can make. Formal Pentagon rules still prohibit women from joining combat branches including the infantry, Special Forces and most field artillery units. But because of personnel needs, Army commanders have been circumventing rules that restrict how women can be deployed, and in the Iraq and Afghanistan combat theaters conventional battle lines have been erased.
In areas such as bomb disposal and intelligence, female troops are being utilized alongside combat soldiers, facing the same prospects for a firefight. Women are serving as machine gunners on Humvees and even leading combat units into battle.
Female soldiers have been particularly essential when dealing with conservative Islamic societies where local cultural sensitivities bar women from interacting with men. Female troops conduct searches of Iraqi and Afghan women and are able to communicate with local families in ways that male soldiers could not. This diversity has made the military more flexible, culturally conscious and stronger.
The old argument that the presence of women in the ranks would disrupt unit cohesion have fallen away, since those fears have not been realized through experience. More than 200,000 of the 2 million Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been women.
It has long been the conventional wisdom that the American people would not tolerate female soldiers coming back in body bags. Not so. Dozens of women military personnel have been killed in recent combat and hundreds more wounded. Still, a July New York Times/CBS News poll showed that 53 percent of Americans support allowing women "to join combat units, where they would be directly involved in the ground fighting."
The notion that women don't have the mettle to fight in war is now as stale as chipped beef on week-old toast. America's female fighting forces have more than acquitted themselves on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. They deserve to be recognized for their professionalism and bravery as soldiers under fire.