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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Lifts Armed Services Ban on Women in Combat

January 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta decided to lift the ban on women in the military serving in combat, opening thousands of front line jobs to women and reversing the 1994 policy that kept them out of those positions. Gwen Ifill talks with James Kitfield of National Journal about the historic change and implications.
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GWEN IFILL: Now: two stories about the military.

The Pentagon confirmed today that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has decided to lift the armed services’ ban on woman serving in combat. That announcement, which will come tomorrow, could open up thousands of front-line jobs to women, and it reverses a 1994 policy that kept women out of those positions.

For more on what would be an historic change, I’m joined by James Kitfield of  National Journal.

What has been — has this been in the works for a while, James?

JAMES KITFIELD, National Journal: Well, they — a couple of years — I mean, I think, within last year, they opened up 14,000 additional jobs. So it’s been — they have been thinking about this. You know, wars are great levelers.

Anyone who has spent any time in Iraq or Afghanistan knows that women are on the tip of the spear. There are no front lines in these counterinsurgency wars. So, if you’re a logistics battalion that has women in it — and during the Iraq invasion, there was one that got captured that had women in it. There was artillery battalions that are led by female colonels during the invasion. Those artillery units ended up being foot patrols because you didn’t need a lot of artillery in counterinsurgency warfare.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like you’re saying this is a difference without a distinction.

JAMES KITFIELD: Well, what I’m saying is wars have a way of sort of making some of these distinctions meaningless, because women are already in combat, quite honestly.

And men have seen that. Men have seen that they can hold up their own, and women who put their lives on the line, in some cases, more than 100 have paid the ultimate sacrifice. Women are just not willing to go through that and be told that, hey, you’re not allowed this promotion because you can’t be in a combat unit. Hey, I have been in combat for the last few years. So, it’s — the unfairness of it comes to the fore.

GWEN IFILL: Except that there — there is a loophole that Leon Panetta is leaving here which is allowing individual services to decide where it makes sense and where it doesn’t.

JAMES KITFIELD: Right.

GWEN IFILL: So, there must be places where the parameters of debate have been based on what women can and where they cannot be.

JAMES KITFIELD: I think that’s true.

And I think by defaulting to no ban at all, he’s — it was probably pretty clever on his part, because he knows there’s going to be some exceptions carved out. And the services have three years to do it. Think special forces, the shock troops, the guys who crack — knock down the doors and shoot people. There are a lot of strength issues and that kind of thing involved in that.

So, I would think that would be the most obvious place. The Marine Corps may have a slightly more difficult time than the Army, because it has that ethos of a few good men and shock troops, as well as elite troops. But, in general, he’s saying that you have to — you know, the onus is on you, the services, to tell me why they can’t serve here, prove to me that they can’t do this job, rather than the way it was, where women had to say, well, I should be able to do this job. I have strength. I have stamina.

So I think the onus is now on the services to really think hard about where you can justify not having women.

GWEN IFILL: Assume for a moment that the draft were to be reinstated. Does that affect — does that change people’s minds about how many women would be affected or the number of women who would be willing to — who would this time — right now, it’s voluntary.

JAMES KITFIELD: Right.

GWEN IFILL: But this would be — that would be different, wouldn’t it?

JAMES KITFIELD: Of course it would.

And I’m one who thinks — I wish there was going to be a draft, because I think it would be better than sending an all-volunteer force to fight a decades’ worth of war. It’s not going to happen politically. But if there was a draft, clearly, if the military has opened up all these roles to women, you would think that the draft would include women then.

GWEN IFILL: Here’s the other question.

Today, we saw in testimony on Capitol Hill the Air Force admit that there has been a great rise in the number of sexual assaults, at least at some training bases. Is this something that has been part of the concern as well?

JAMES KITFIELD: It is.

And I was at Lackland and I covered that story in depth. They have a — the military has a huge sexual abuse problem; 19,000 service members each year report they’re victims of sexual abuse, and they have had a very hard time getting their hand around it. If you heard some of the testimony today, called a cancer. But Secretary Panetta has called it sort of an invisible cancer, invisible epidemic.

This dynamic is not unlike what we saw after the Persian Gulf War, where women served in combat, some of them died. Coming out of that, there was the Tailhook scandal. And the decision was made, look, we have created too much of an all-male, super-testosterone-driven ethos, and we are going to open up some different positions like combat aircraft to women.

This feels to me a bit the same way. I suspect that Secretary Panetta in thinking about this had two data points, one of which is, he’s got the sexual abuse problem, a lot of them disproportionately towards women, these attacks. And he thinks the ethos of the services may be somewhat of a cause of that.

Secondly, he looks at gays in the military. They have gone through a decade of don’t ask, don’t tell, finally lifted the ban on gays openly serving in the military, and the response from the rank and file was a collective shrug. I don’t think they care anymore. He understands that after a decade of war, these people have been watching each other’s backs.

There is not going to be a huge amount of blowback from the rank and file, because they know that these things are not important. What is important is, as I said, do these people — can these people have my back in a war zone? They have proven they can. The rest of it kind of goes away.

GWEN IFILL: Does that also mean that, as Secretary Panetta leaves and goes back to the walnut farm, as he described it so memorably, does this mean he leaves quite a legacy in opening up the armed forces to different kinds of people?

JAMES KITFIELD: Yes. You would think that he’s probably thinking this is a kind of legacy-burnishing move, a very historic move.

So, I think — yes, I think that’s probably on his mind.

GWEN IFILL: Gays in the military, women in the military.

JAMES KITFIELD: Right. The trend lines are pretty clear on both of those social barriers. But, again, a decade of war have made things possible that were not possible before. And I think that they’re capitalizing on that.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any way to quantify how many women will be affected by this new — by the lifting of this ban?

JAMES KITFIELD: Well, it’s hard to say, because we don’t know what the services are going to carve out as the kind of jobs that women can serve in.

But it’s potentially hundreds of thousands of jobs. Basically, if you take out, say, special forces, the very tip of the spear, you could open up hundreds of thousands of jobs to women in ground combat units. And all the major 10 divisions in the Army that do ground combat, there’s no reason to say women can’t serve in those.

GWEN IFILL: And it’s been just a few hours, but has there been any pushback at all, either from any of the branches of the military or from people on Capitol Hill?

JAMES KITFIELD: Well, Joint Chiefs apparently support this. So, I don’t think you’re going to see any pushback from there.

There will be some pushback from the Hill. The question is, how much? My reading of it is that the momentum is clearly with those who would open up these jobs to women. It’s going to be — I think it will be a rearguard action of a few really social conservatives that say this — women are not suited for these things. But I don’t expect it will get in the way of actually implementing this policy.

GWEN IFILL: James Kitfield of National Journal, thanks a lot.