Don’t reverse the gains of women in the military
Six years ago, I had the honor of ending the final vestige of overt gender discrimination in the government when, along with then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, we opened all military jobs to qualified women. People often ask me whether the decision to put women on the front lines of combat was a difficult one. It was not. When we made the decision, many women were already serving in combat zones. Moreover, the military has a responsibility to uphold the most fundamental American value of equality of opportunity for all.
With that equality comes responsibility. Last month, a federal court in Texas agreed, holding that the selective service registration requirement should apply to women as well as men. This ruling may lead to the Trump administration reinstating the combat exclusion rule. It would be a grave — not to mention unconstitutional — mistake.
The fact is, our military readiness has improved by giving every qualified individual the opportunity to serve. Since 2013, women have done the hard work of breaking through the previous barriers in a series of remarkable firsts: the first women to graduate from the Army’s Ranger School, the first woman to graduate from the Marine Corps’ infantry officer basic course, the first women to integrate into Army infantry units, the first woman to become an airborne Ranger, and just this year, the first woman graduated from the Marine Corps’ highly challenging Winter Mountain Leaders Course. This list will continue to grow until a woman has occupied every job previously closed to them, up to the very top of the chain of command.
Unfortunately, there are those who still hold on to the prejudices of the past despite the realities of the present and future. Some have recently resurfaced arguments that women don’t belong in combat, arguing that the military lowered the physical standards to accept women in those jobs, and that women are disruptive to unit cohesion. Columnist Kathleen Parker also argued in The Washington Post that we altered the definition of combat “so that civilians could pretend that this is not a travesty.”
These are the standard arguments that we heard repeatedly during the process of making the decision to end gender discrimination in the military. They are not only baseless in fact, but are also completely out of touch with the realities of the military today.
First, with respect to lowering the standards and negatively affecting combat readiness, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, gender-neutral physical standards were created for every job previously closed, whereas before the only standard had been gender. The military spent three years conducting extensive scientific studies and determined exactly what physical and mental skills and abilities are needed for each job. By opening all jobs to women, and ensuring that every person in those jobs meets these standards, actual military readiness has improved.
The second argument — that, as one commentator put it in the Wall Street Journal, a “more serious effect of sex integration has become taboo to mention: the inevitable introduction of eros into combat units” — is hard to dignify with a response, particularly in the #MeToo era. Blaming women and banning them from serving in particular jobs is hardly the appropriate response. Indeed, one of the most important reasons for ending gender discrimination against women in the military was the fact that the military has struggled with the scourge of sexual assault and continues to work to change its culture that had historically regarded women as less than equal to men. The reality is that the most effective way to deal with sexual assault is to increase the number of women in command positions in the military. Equal leadership is the key to equal service.
We need women in the military in greater numbers than ever to meet our troop-strength targets without lowering our standards. We want the best to serve and have the opportunity to advance regardless of gender. Indeed, a key factor in persuading the top military brass, who had concerns about women in combat, was that the “front lines” of battle have fundamentally changed. They could not deny that women — such as Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. —were already serving in combat and playing essential roles in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, more than 80 women have been killed in fighting since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
There are now hundreds of women serving in positions that had previously been closed to them, and tens of thousands of others who are aspiring to do the same. This is not the time to reverse course and undermine their service or weaken our military readiness by replacing them. The United States is strong because everyone deserves a chance to serve our country. To fight for our nation is not a privilege for a few, it is a right and responsibility for all Americans in the 21st century.
Leon Panetta, the chairman of the Panetta Institute, was budget director and White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and defense secretary and CIA director under President Barack Obama.