Women in combat will change face of warfare

President Barack Obama’s second inauguration was not the only big news to come out of Washington this week: just three days after Obama talked about fairness and equality in his inaugural address, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women in combat.

During his comments Thursday, Panetta said that it was “the responsibility of every citizen to protect the nation.”

Many have praised the surprise announcement as a landmark for equal rights, including some Republican leaders, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who said lifting the ban was “the right thing to do.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said, “I think it’s wonderful. I think our women from West Virginia who serve will be just wonderful.”

After the announcement, Obama said in a statement the decision was “another step toward fulfilling our nation’s founding ideals of fairness and equality.”

Obama said the deaths of more than 150 American military women in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that “valor knows no gender.” Another 1,000 women have been wounded in those two wars.

Lifting the ban is expected to open 230,000 front-line positions to women. Currently women constitute 15 percent of the active-duty military.

Few critical voices have emerged after the announcement, although McCain said he wants “to make sure that the standards, particularly the physical standards, are met so that the combat efficiency of the units are not degraded.”

Panetta vowed lifting the ban will not compromise our country’s military readiness, and promised the armed forces will not lower standards for service, including physical fitness.

We believe every female soldier should have the opportunity to rise through the ranks, and understand there have been many valiant women who have fought and died for this country.

That being said, it should be noted Thursday’s announcement has, in effect, changed the face of combat. It has also, perhaps, changed the face of compassion in America.

How will our country react to massive female casualties in any upcoming military involvement? Will we react with shock and anger, the way many Americans did when thousands of young men’s bodies were shipped home from Vietnam?

Even some who support the lifting of the ban acknowledge it will be a difficult adjustment to see American women on the front lines in combat.

“It’s one thing to be some place where a rocket hits and be wounded, and it’s another thing to be out there on a night raid against al-Qaida,” McCain said this week.

Many American men were brought up to believe they should protect women and keep them from harm’s way. Thursday’s announcement made clear those beliefs have no place in our modern military.

Is that progress? What are we sacrificing in the name of equality? It remains to be seen how sending women – including young mothers – to fight on the front lines will affect Americans’ hearts and psyches.