Making the field more level

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Editorial: Jan. 31, 2013

ISSUE: Women in combat
OUR VIEW: Keeping up with reality

The Pentagon last week recognized that American society has changed and it is time for the military to follow suit by opening combat jobs for women.

“They’re fighting and they’re dying together,” Leon Panetta said during a Jan. 24 news conference in which he announced women no longer would be barred from most military combat jobs. “The time has come for our policies to recognize that reality.”

It is reality that women in the armed forces come under fire and lose life and limbs. But it also has been reality that the same rank, honors and career paths are not open to them because they have not been allowed to serve in dedicated combat units.

It also is reality that for many soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, the military is a career and women have been excluded from parts of it.

Some wonder if women can handle the physical demands.

Gen. James Amos, commandant of the U.S. Marines Corps, said, “We can’t afford to lower standards. We can’t make adjustments on what’s required on the battlefield.” But he went on to say the Corps would write standards that, “quite frankly, should have been developed years ago and have not been.”

Just as the nature of society has changed, so has the nature of war. Today’s conflicts are less about territory or material and more about ideology. The enemy doesn’t stop to ascertain the nature or status of the troops it is engaging. Indeed, the events of 9/11 showed unconventional enemies specifically targeted civilians.

As Gen. Amos pointed out, there still will be combat jobs in which women do not participate. It would be costly, perhaps prohibitively so, if only a handful of women qualify for some jobs. Is it in anyone’s best interest to develop protocol, logistics and support systems for only a few? But those are decisions that should be based on performance and reality, not outdated norms.

Standards may change, perhaps in a way that some would perceive being lowered. Different does not necessarily mean lower. However, women bring other sensibilities to the battlefield that may be a pleasant surprise for doubters.

There’s one more difference that so far has not been discussed: Shouldn’t women be required to register for the draft, too?

Time will tell if the Pentagon made the right move. But if the armed forces don’t reflect real Americans, the promise of America will have fallen short.

This editorial represents a consensus of The News-Enterprise editorial board.