Earlier this week Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced a fundamental change in the policies regarding the use of women in combat positions. In Mr. Panetta's own words, "Today Gen. Dempsey and I are pleased to announce that we are eliminating the ground combat exclusion rule for women and moving forward with a plan to eliminate all gender-based barriers to service. Our purpose is to ensure the mission is carried out by the best qualified and most capable service members, regardless of gender and regardless of creed and beliefs. If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job -- and let me be clear, we are not reducing qualifications -- then they should have the right to serve."
The media, talk shows and the internet has been covering this development for the last week with plenty of excitement for both sides of the issue. Arguments for the idea here, here, here and here. Arguments against the idea here, here, here and here.
Some of the arguments are better than others of course.
I say yes, let's open all the jobs up to all of our military personnel who are capable of performing the required duties. Standards, as Mr. Panetta said, should NOT be lowered in any cases. If a female is capable to pass the required competencies and tests, she's earned the opportunity to serve in that role. Like many social groups that have been rejected before (blacks, asians, gays, etc...) the United States Military seems to have a solid ability to adapt to changing circumstances. They got over serving and fighting next to those groups, even the most elite groups will likely get over it, too.
That said, if we're able to, over a period of determine based on evidence that certain jobs don't seem to suit females or there is a greater rate of injury or death, then that would be a legitimate reason to modify the future role of women in the service. It must be evidence based with a statistically significant amount of data to base decisions on.
So far, at least based on a study done by the National Center for PTSD, women are reacting to the experience of combat operations in much the same way males are.
From the study: (Emphasis mine)
Though the broader literature suggests that women may be more vulnerable to the effects of trauma exposure, most available studies on combat trauma have relied on samples in which women’s combat exposure is limited and analyses that do not directly address gender differences in associations between combat exposure and post deployment mental health. Female service members’ increased exposure to combat in Afghanistan and Iraq provides a unique opportunity to evaluate gender differences in different dimensions of combat related stress and associated consequence for post deployment mental health. The current study addressed these research questions in a representative sample of female and male U.S. veterans who had returned from deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq within the previous year. As expected, women reported slightly less exposure than men to most combat-related stressors, but higher exposure to other stressors (i.e., prior life stress, deployment sexual harassment). No gender differences were observed in reports of perceived threat in the war zone. Though it was hypothesized that combat-related stressors would demonstrate stronger negative associations with post deployment mental health for women, only one of 16 stressor gender interactions achieved statistical significance and an evaluation of the clinical significance of these interactions revealed that effects were trivial. Results suggest that female Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom service members may be as resilient to combat-related stress as men. Future research is needed to evaluate gender differences in the longer-term effects of combat exposure.
If the science bears out over time that women are just as suitable to specialty service groups like Navy Seals of Army Rangers, we as a Country are best served by having the most qualified people, regardless of gender, serving in those roles. If the science bears out over time that female aren't holding up as well as males, then we'd need to change it.
As our Country realizes more and more that white males aren't superior to the rest of America in a wide swath of professions including politics, the law, education, the clergy, athletics, law enforcement, etc. there should be no shock that this evolution reaches the outer limits of our military. There should be no barriers or false limits preventing any American, male or female, white or black, straight or gay, christian or non from all of the same opportunities any of us enjoy.