The new military
In our view
When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the end of the ban on women serving in combat in the U.S. military, polls showed the public backing the decision, with 66 percent in favor.
Unlike seemingly every other issue in the nation, this one doesn't fracture along partisan lines: Majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents support it.
Nor is there much difference between men and women. Instead, according to the survey, the split was by age. Among those younger than 50, some 72 percent say they support allowing women to serve in combat roles.
The change formalizes what has been reality for a decade: Women are essential in the U.S. military in many jobs, up to and including combat support and counterinsurgency. (The lifted restrictions are on artillery, armor and infantry.)
In the sort of modern asymmetrical wars America is likely to fight, the distinction of combat and combat-support is fluid and arbitrary.
Thus more than 20,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at least 152 have died.
Combat service is the path to promotion and leadership. Yet until now, women who have been through combat unofficially have been officially blocked from those paths.
Every change brings challenges and with this one some of the challenges are predictable.
Opponents say allowing women to have a greater combat role could hurt military effectiveness. That was one of the reasons for the Clinton administration's 1994 refusal to change the policy. Not all women will be physically suited to the work -- as not all men are. Standards in combat cannot be modified for the sake of gender.
The change would persist if the U.S. reverted to a drafted military, as some wanted it to do during the Iraq War. In a future draft, women would be enlisted along with men. What looks like progressivism now might not if that day ever comes.
An even greater challenge is suggested by a coincidence that cannot be overlooked. The same week Panetta was announcing the changes, Air Force brass were testifying to Congress about sexual assaults. An astonishing 20 percent and 40 percent of servicewomen are victims of rape or attempted rape in their careers.
Meanwhile a report this week by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that doctors, nurses and other health care providers in the military get no solid guidance on handling reports of sexual assault.
Other protocols also will have to be addressed. In 2008, more than 10 percent of military women had unintended pregnancies, which is much higher than the rate among the general population.
This change is worthwhile. Our young soldiers will be capable of adjusting to this, as they have to so much else. The older heads who write and enforce the policies have their work cut out for them,