Panetta’s decision to officially lift the ban on combat roles for women serving in the armed forces is a significant step towards lessening discrimination for Americans who choose to serve. However, we need to remain both vigilant and realistic regarding the persistent inequalities that continue to plague our armed forces. Namely: women and same-sex oriented men and women who join these institutions continue to be marginalized if not blatantly discriminated against.
For instance, women presently deployed in Iraq and/or Afghanistan continue to be at higher risk of being raped or sexually assaulted by fellow male comrades than killed by enemy fire (see film suggestion below to learn more). Lifting the combat ban could be a significant step in altering this reality insofar as women’s abilities to go up the ranks should open considerably with official access to the frontlines. The more women represented in higher positions within our armed forces, the greater the chances that sexual harassment and/or assaults will be taken seriously.
The bottom line is that the decision makers who wage war and those who strategize and engage in warfare remain predominantly male. Our armed forces remain male dominated, hyper-masculine institutions. Until the culture that accompanies such male dominated institutions is altered, values associated with both femininity and homosexuality will continue to be demeaned and marginalized.
While the lift on the combat ban should certainly be celebrated and seen as progress, it should not disguise the reality that additional measures need to be implemented to alter the ingrained culture of our armed forces that breeds these types of inequalities. Similarly, the overturn of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, while notable, has not expanded to widening rights or benefits to spouses of gay and lesbian service members or necessarily enabled greater acceptance of gays and lesbians into these institutions.
In fact, just this week the New York Times ran a cover story in their print edition highlighting multiple ways that spouses of gay service members continue to be marginalized and discriminated against. Such forms of discrimination include barring gay and lesbian spouses from military retreats meant to help spouses cope with the pressures of deployments and relocations, denial of privileges and benefits routinely given to heterosexual couples within these institutions, such as financial incentives, denial of access to discounted housing given to heterosexual couples, lack of access to community activities and services on bases, and lack of access to legal assistance, among others (Swarns, 2013).
Until federal policy changes regarding same sex marriage, these inequalities will likely persist. Moreover, until the ingrained culture within military life changes more radically, women and gays and lesbians will continue to be marginalized and discriminated against. More progress and additional measures need to be implemented to protect all service members who choose to join our armed forces, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
Swarns, R. (2013). Gay Spouses Face a Fight for Acceptance in the Military. The New York Times, Cover Story. Can be retrieved online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/20/us/gay-spouses-face-a-fight-for-accept... .
For an eye opening and devastating exploration of the extent to which women face sexual harassment and assault by other service members with little to no recourse, I recommend the searing investigative documentary, ‘The Invisible War’ (2012). For more information, go to: http://invisiblewarmovie.com/
Copyright 2013 Azadeh Aalai