COHEN: Already in combat

“No limitations.”

That was the entirety of the email our Lieutenant sent the female midshipman in Yale’s NROTC unit last week. No limitations — because on Thursday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey rescinded the ban on women serving in combat positions.

This moment was long overdue, and not just because the military is now upholding our nation’s abstract principle of equality. Finally, our military acknowledges the reality that women are already serving in combat.

Look at Illinois Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, a former helicopter pilot in Iraq. Shot down by an enemy’s rocket-propelled-grenade, Duckworth became the first female double-amputee of the Iraq war, losing both her legs. Tell her that she wasn’t in combat.

Particularly in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the frontlines of battle have been murky. Women couldn’t be assigned to do foot patrols in an Afghan village, but they could be assigned to drive a fuel truck along a dangerous road. I don’t know which of those scenarios is more dangerous, but supply convoys have faced relentless attacks over the last 10 years. Tell those women fired upon or bombed while driving that they weren’t in combat.

By allowing the military to officially recognize female combat service, this new policy will actually keep female soldiers safer. No longer will they be sent on “attachment” (a clever way to send women into combat without officially sending women into combat) without additional combat training — something they could not receive as women.

The critics of this policy change have a number of half-baked reasons to oppose it:

There will be a relaxation of standards, they claim. This seems odd, since in the announcement Secretary Panetta clearly said, “If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job — and let me be clear, I’m not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job — if they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed or color or gender or sexual orientation.” All that will change is the presumption that standards do not have to take women into account. Standards won’t have to change but will have to be justified: A tank’s artillery shell weighs 50 lbs., so a cannon loader must be able to lift 50 lbs.

If women serve on the front lines and are captured, they will face extra abuse (including rape) at the hands of their captors, critics cry. But women in the military are fully aware of the risks of their job —if they are willing, they should be allowed to assume them. Furthermore, women have already been prisoners of war, most recently in Iraq. To claim that this policy shift suddenly means women could be captured is at best uninformed, and at worst a flimsy cover for sexism. Furthermore, rape inside the military itself is an endemic problem that the Defense Department is actively combating; surely allowing more women to gain leadership positions will help reduce the scourge of military rape.

Perhaps the best argument for the change in policy is looking at who opposes it. Two of its harshest critics are the Family Research Council and the Center for Military Readiness. Both the FRC and CMR oppose this policy change because it is “social experimentation that doesn’t belong in the military.”

That sounds awfully familiar: We heard it most recently when President Obama repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Elaine Donnelly, president of CMR and someone with absolutely no military service, warned us then that allowing gay soldiers would destroy military readiness. A recent report from the Palm Center showed that there has been no negative impact from repeal on military readiness, retention or recruitment — nothing. In fact, the report showed only positives. So forgive me (and Secretary Panetta, General Dempsey and the Joint Chiefs of Staff) if I don’t find Mrs. Donnelly’s arguments particularly convincing.

This policy change will be implemented carefully and deliberately — not fully in place until January of 2016, just eight months after Yale NROTC’s first female midshipman commissions. It is another example of the American military’s progress in recognizing modern realities: in 1948, President Truman recognized that racism had no place in the military; in 2010, President Obama recognized that homophobia had no place in the military; and now in 2013, the military establishment itself recognized that sexism has no place in the military.

No limitations.

Sam Cohen is a sophomore in Calhoun College and a midshipman in Yale NROTC. This column expresses his personal views only, and not the views of Yale, Yale NROTC, the Department of Defense or any other entity. Contact him at samson.cohen@yale.edu.

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