When defense secretary Leon Panetta announced Jan. 24 that women would be permitted to serve in combat, he was simply making official what has been the reality on the ground after a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The increasingly blurred boundary between frontline troops and the rear-echelon forces that support them had made a fiction of the Pentagon's long-standing ban on women in combat roles. But anyone who has been paying attention to the ways we fight probably knew that. Here are six things you may not have known:
Isn't there a law against women in combat?
Not anymore. The last congressional restrictions ended in the early 1990s. Women have been flying combat missions for 20 years, and the Navy recently began allowing them to serve aboard submarines. Until Panetta's decision, women couldn't serve in smaller combat units--including infantry, armor and special operations--close to the front. The plan is to open up these units by 2016, unless the military convinces Pentagon civilians that certain all-male units are worth preserving.
Just how much combat experience have women had?
Since 9/11, they've accounted for 10% of troops deployed and only about 2% of casualties. But nearly 80% of female deaths in the war zones have been categorized as "hostile." Altogether, 152 women have been killed, compared with 6,511 men. That disproportionate share of battle casualties stems from females' formal exclusion from combat and is sure to rise.
Are Americans prepared for the prospect of more women meeting their death in combat?
A generation ago, many believed the nation would never accept its daughters' regularly coming home as casualties of war. Today, 2 of 3 Americans polled support the change.
Will the new rule hurt military readiness?
Unlikely, as the Army is still 85% male and readiness is measured in more than strength. On average, repeated military studies have shown that women are physically weaker than men, especially in sheer upper-body strength. The services plan to develop position-specific tests to ensure sufficient strength where it is needed. Human nature has made men the hunters and aggressors, which translates into attributes useful in combat. But those traits are also blamed for more noncombat accidents and suicides. Males account for about 95% of military suicides.
If the draft ever returns, will women be eligible for it?
Currently, only men ages 18 to 25 have to register with Selective Service. In 1981 the Supreme Court ruled that women didn't have to sign up, in large part because they couldn't be assigned to combat. But the latest change means women can be assigned to combat (even, under current policy, against their will, Army officials say). That suggests that a male-only draft, or even the requirement to register for one, is unlikely to survive Supreme Court review.
What do the guys think?
In hundreds of interviews of post-9/11 vets conducted by the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kans., one refrain is constant: gender is a nonissue when the bullets start flying.