When my brother joined the military, all my theoretical ideas about war and peace got hung up in the reality that my little brother would face death. My brother assured me that he was ready; he wanted to fight. He wanted to protect and serve. But he was 18 at the time and mortality was a vague concept.
My brother was lucky. He joined the military just as our president began to draw down active duty forces in the Middle East. But every time I see my brother and his hard jaw and pressed uniform, I’m both honored and worried.
On January 23, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women serving in combat, noting that it is “the responsibility of every citizen to protect the nation.” (Emphasis mine.) The decision is important not only for the military, but for what it signals to the women of the United States: If you can do the job, you can have the job.
It seems like a basic right. If you can do the work, if you are qualified and there is a need, you should have the job. But if you are a minority or a woman, it hasn’t always been that way. I remember overhearing my parents and their friends worry about the level of safety in town when a woman joined the fire department.
“But if she passed the test…” my mom said, her voice faltering.
My dad answered, “I don’t want a woman protecting me.”
And that’s what objections to this ruling boil down to. Girls aren’t good enough.
I was only 9 when I heard him say that, and even then I felt the insult: You won’t be good enough because you are a girl. And that’s what objections to this ruling boil down to. Girls aren’t good enough. This war over war was fought with race instead of gender centuries ago. It’s now looked on as a blight on our history and I hope this period of gender discrimination is, too.
“But what if women are attacked and captured and sexually assaulted?” my husband, the father of our little girl, said in response to the news. “They already are,” I countered. “It just happens within the military and not by the enemy.” I also think that in response to any concern over their well being any female in a combat role would say the same thing my brother told me, “I’m honored to serve my country.” And shouldn’t that courage be good enough?
On a recent trip to Israel, I woke up early one morning and came down to the hotel lobby for coffee. The hotel overlooked the Mediterranean, but the view that enamored me was the sheer number of military men and women out jogging. An Israeli guest caught me gawking at the long line of men and women running along the shore. “Our women,” he said, “are a force to be reckoned with. In our military there is no gender, only courage.”
Secretary Panetta echoed that sentiment when he told the press that the deaths of women in Iraq and Afghanistan show that “there is no gender, only valor.”
Any argument against women in these roles because they will weaken our defenses falls flat in the face of Israel, which boasts the most effective military in the world and has allowed women to serve equally since 2000. As a new era of warfare begins and the idea of a “front line” becomes more metaphorical than actual, American women have already been fighting and dying for their country. Think they’re not ready? Think again. They’ve been serving and dying alongside our husbands and brothers in Iraq and Afghanistan. This decision by Secretary Panetta reaffirms that when it comes to a job well done, we are all created equal.
My daughter is just a toddler. She is entering her twos—the most war-like phase of childhood. But even as we battle every day over carrots and naptime, the idea of her serving in a combat role terrifies me, and also makes me proud. I don’t know if she will ever serve like her uncle and, honestly, it doesn’t matter what she chooses. Secretary Panetta’s decision is only a difference of semantics as the idea of what constitutes combat continues to fluctuate. What is significant is that in addition to paving a way for career advancement for women in the military, we are also creating a world where we tell women that the founding principles of this country apply to them as well—that they, too, are created equal. And what matters isn’t their gender, but whether they can do the job.
And that is what I want for my daughter: an equal chance in all things.
Not convinced? Read the opposing point of view to women fighting in combat at mom.me.