Bye Bye Ban

Well it doesn’t get any Vagina Newsier than this.

Yesterday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the lifting of the ban, in place since 1994, of women serving in combat roles in the military.

This is not as straightforward as it sounds. Military branches have until May 15 to submit plans on how to implement the change by 2016. And while this is a significant step in the battle against gender-based discrimination in the military, most of the work to be done is cultural, not administrative. And of course, there are larger questions of war and combat in general, and whether we should be putting people in harm’s way at all, regardless of gender.

But the murkiest part of this change is that it changes a lot less than many realize. The 1994 ban defined combat roles in terms that don’t make much sense in Iraq and Afghanistan; These are not wars in which we get to decide which groups of soldiers engage in combat. So instead of keeping women out of danger or out of jobs some worried they couldn’t handle, the ban has forced commanding officers to twist themselves into semantic knots to put female soldiers where they’re needed without violating the law. Instead of being formally assigned to a ground unit, women get ‘attached’ as pilots or medics, for example. No less likely to face combat, but in compliance with the letter of the law.

(Recommended listening – NPR’s 2007 series on stories of women in combat.)

The real impact of the ban is that while woman have been fighting alongside men in combat roles all along, they’ve been ineligible for combat pay, awards and recognition, and high-ranking combat titles that lead to promotion. Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, an Air National Guard helicopter pilot and one of the plaintiffs in an ACLU federal suit filed in November, “was was shot down, returned fire and was wounded while on the ground in Afghanistan, but could not seek combat leadership positions because the Defense Department did not officially acknowledge her experience as combat.”

The end of that bullshit is what we’re celebrating.

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