The handwriting has been on the wall for years.
The United States someday would join the growing number of Free World nations that allow women to serve on the battlefield.
In counterinsurgency wars like we have been fighting in the Middle East, the “front lines” are wherever an insurgent has placed an IED, a sophisticated booby trap typically crafted of battlefield spare parts and cellphones.
In such a combat environment, there is no “safe rear area,” where women or other non-combatants can carry out their tasks with little fear of injury or death. Battlefield deaths of women in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan give grim testimony to that fact.
Still, the main combat military occupational specialties — front-line infantry, armor, and artillery — have been off limits to women in the armed forces. As one of his last acts before retiring as Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta has ended that restriction.
With the proverbial stroke of a pen, he has eliminated one of the few — perhaps the final — restriction on women in the armed forces.
For those who really care about the military — and I am afraid our number is decreasing as fewer and fewer of our citizens in general and our national leaders in particular have served in uniform — there are spoken and unspoken questions and concerns.
There are differences between men and women, and no government decree or court ruling can change that. They are not differences as in “better or worse” and it is impossible to cast “all men” or “all women” as having any given characteristics or limitations. But the differences are there.
Concerns about sexual liaisons between service members of the opposite sex undoubtedly will be raised in homes throughout the land, but as a veteran of two years in the active Army and 30 years in the Florida National Guard, I suspect this will not be much more of a problem by virtue of women serving in combat roles.
The opportunity for misconduct exists — indeed, Gen. David Petraeus has become its poster boy — and the battlefield issue probably won’t change that dynamic much. Sexual assault of both males and females is being recognized as a growing problem in the military, and the armed forces are dealing with it.
I suspect that the specter of sexual abuse of female prisoners of war by the enemy is a more realistic fear, and for that, I know of no solution. Soldiers traditionally watch out for each other — as they say, “I’m not fighting for my country; I’m fighting for the guy in the next foxhole” — and this may become part of the battlefield dynamic.
In my two years on active duty, assigned to an Army Intelligence unit whose workplace was an office building and which did not have a tent or a jeep to its name and whose members lived in the civilian community in Washington, D.C., we had one member of the Women’s Army Corps in a clerical position. One.
By the time I retired from 30 years in the Florida National Guard, we had women who served alongside men in all but the three combat arms, and they were among the best soldiers I have known.
And when it was time for tactical training, they trained as infantry in the field, and they did just as well as their male counterparts.
In the final analysis, the concept of women on the battlefield will work, because in the armed forces, orders, whether they come from the White House and the Pentagon or a company commander in his jeep or his field command post, are obeyed.
It is this — and guns — that define the difference between military and civilian life.
No commander is even required to end his orders with “Make it work!” because that is implicit.
The explicit reply is “Yes sir!”
Or with increasing frequency, “Yes ma’am!”
(S. L Frisbie is retired, from the Florida National Guard and — for the most part — from journalism. Having been married for 49-plus years, he is very good as saying “Yes ma’am!”)