With so much talk about officials' leaving behind a legacy when they depart from office, we could be excused for thinking that Leon Panetta's decision to revoke the ban on women in combat units was just an attempt to do something striking. But it wasn't gratutious, and the strongest champions of revoking the ban were not liberal politicians with no combat experience but, instead, the Chiefs of Staff of the military services.
The ban has been in place for decades, occasioned by the elimination of the services' separate branches for women and the steady increase in the number of women in uniform. In the period since we went to war after 9/11, there have been challenges to the ban, the latest a lawsuit filed by the ACLU. Although it will take some time to formulate and implement plans to integrate women fully into the combat arms, the battle over women in battle is essentially over.
In recent conflicts, banning women from combat units like infantry, armor and artillery hasn't kept women out of combat. Our wars have had no lines of contact, no front or rear, no clear distinction between combatant and non-combatant. So, women, even if they were cosseted in large, modern operating bases, were still subject to injury and death from ground assaults, mortar rounds and suicide bombs. Furthermore, because they have not been in combat units, they have been serving in erstwhile rear-echelon organizations as drivers, supply specialists, military police and similar occupations. But because we insist on sending convoys down roads that are not secured by infantry, they are subject to inprovised explosive devices, and women have been killed and wounded anyway.
There have been some complaints, principally from people without experience to inform them, that the relative physical weakness of women make them a liability; that men will stop to take care of a woman instead of carrying on with the mission; that women are emotionally incapable of dealing with the rigors of armed conflict. None of this has ever been demonstrated convincingly. For some time, females have been fighter pilots and integrated into some ships' crews, and the Navy has decided that there soon will be women aboard submarines. When the US Military Academy was opened to women in 1976, there were anguished cries from many quarters that this would be the end of the institution. These days, the first women to be graduated from West Point are senior officers and have seen their own children---men and women---be graduated from a startlingly strengthened academy.
To be sure, there are logistical and administrative challenges to be overcome, and the social fabric of combat units will have to change, even if subtly. Women will have to volunteer for combat, and special operations forces may still be closed to them. But in the end the only barrier to smooth integration is the commitment of the leadership. Poor leaders have rotten units, even if the members are inherently of good quality, and good leaders have good units, no matter what confronts them.