Truman National Security Project

Breaking the Brass Ceiling: An Important Step Forward


Last Thursday afternoon, in what will prove a historical turning point, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced the end of the prohibitions against women serving in military combat units.  The end to the “ground combat exclusion” marks the end to policies that did not reflect the reality of the modern battlefield.

While over the past few decades some positions have been opened up to female personnel and Secretary Panetta himself directed the opening of about 15,000 positions that were previously closed to women — this move is comprehensive.  No longer will it be an issue of what roles women can serve in, but a matter of what are we excluding women from and why.

The move, supported by Chairman Dempsey and the service chiefs, is truly a case of the policy catching up with the reality.  The nature of complex operations in the immediate post-Cold War era blurred the front lines (where it had been assumed all combat would take place).  War in the 21st century has almost completely erased them.

Notably, this decision comes two months after four female veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan filed a lawsuit challenging Defense Department policies that excluded women from being recognized as serving in ground combat.  This move comes just a few weeks after the swearing in of the first two female combat veterans to serve in the U.S. Congress,  Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who served two tours in Iraq, and  Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), who lost both legs to wounds sustained during service as a helicopter pilot in Iraq.

Many questions remain.  Will women now have to register for the selective service?  What jobs will remain off-limits, if any?  Will women be allowed to apply for the Special Forces or Navy SEALs? And what will be the implementation timeline?

While only a first step, this decision is an important and eminently sensible one, a change that reflects that women can, do and have served in combat.  Now, not only will women be recognized for their valor and bravery through medals and awards, but their achievements will be respected by allowing them to officially serve in roles previously closed to them.

Still, there will be critics of this pronouncement who will argue that women don’t have what it takes to serve in combat – that they are too timid or physically too weak.  Arguments that the inclusion of women in ground combat units will impair unit performance are ill-informed, and statements that women are not capable of withstanding the rigors of combat are outright dishonest.

Women already carry weapons, come under enemy fire, fly fighter jets and command warships.  A quarter of a million women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and over 150 of them have, in recent years, made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation.

It is about time that the notion that women are “weak” and can’t compete with their male colleagues is discarded as a symbol of arcane prejudices, more so than an objective assessment of what women can and cannot do.  Indeed, the same argument was made about Danica Patrick and her NASCAR and Indy-car colleagues, Katie Hnida as the NCAA Division I football placekicker; or pro baseball pitchers Ila Borders and the “knuckleball princess,” Eri Yoshida.  While they have not always won or been the best in their field, they have no less made the cut – and a cut that thousands of their male counterparts could not make.  As Secretary Panetta said today, “everyone is entitled to a chance.”

It will not be enough to establish policies.  For the “brass ceiling” to be broken and end the second class citizenship many female combat veterans have experienced, Defense Department leaders must cultivate an atmosphere that encourages women to serve in combat units.

Thus, the next steps are for Secretary Panetta, Chairman Dempsey, and the service Secretaries and Chiefs to work through “how” this decision will be implemented.  This initiative will take several years to implement properly.  Indeed, there may not even be enough time for Secretary Panetta’s designated successor, Chuck Hagel, to see this through to completion. But, it will get done.

Prudence sometimes requires patience. In this case, patience can help ensure that the decision to end the ground combat exclusion is one that strengthens the U.S. military.  We may still be a generation away from female Chiefs of Staff or Combatant Commanders but we are well on the path to the day where a female Secretary of Defense and a female Chairman of the Joint Staff stand side by side in defense of the nation.

Mark Jacobson is a Senior Advisor to the Truman Project and Center for National Policy. This post originally appeared on The German Marshall Fund.