The announcement Thursday that the Pentagon will lift its ban on women in combat is momentous. It is also coming to terms with the reality on the ground, and of our all-volunteer military.
With no clear front lines on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, female service members in "non-combat" roles have already been fighting and dying. They have proved themselves with professionalism and, sometimes, heroism. They have disproved the tired arguments that women would be distracting and couldn't pull their weight. So far, more than 150 have died for their country, about 2 percent of total U.S. deaths.
The nearly 290,000 women who have served in those war zones were essential to completing the mission. To get around the ban, some women were temporarily "attached" to combat units.
If women are already in combat, don't they deserve the full opportunity for advancement awarded to their male colleagues? Official combat experience is a prerequisite to rise in the ranks. Eventually, this new policy will help more women become generals and admirals.
Yet, this is not a change to take lightly. Many Americans are wary of the social consequences of women, especially mothers, going to war. For some, it is still unnerving to see a female soldier come home in a body bag. This shift reinforces the need for the military to deal with the shameful number of sexual assaults of female service members.
But we should be reassured that our military leaders are the ones pushing the new policy, and that we have been moving successfully in this direction for a generation.
For years, female pilots and sailors have served in combat zones. Last year, the Pentagon opened 14,000 combat-related jobs to women. Under a 1994 policy, however, women were still barred from nearly 240,000 positions, mostly in the Army and Marines, including infantry, combat tank units and special forces.
The military needs to be smart about the transition. The Army and Marines are to present their plans by May 15 to open most jobs to women. Senior commanders have until January 2016 to seek exemptions. There may still be a few specialties with physical demands that many women can't meet, but some men can't, either. Some women may decide not to seek combat roles, but it should be their choice.
The strategic landscape is also shifting. President Barack Obama plans to withdraw nearly all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by next year. Barring another ground war, fewer Americans men or women will be put in harm's way. Increasingly, the fight against terrorism is being waged by special forces and by unmanned drones.
Even with planned force reductions, the fact is that without women, the armed services can't maintain recruiting standards in the all-volunteer military. Now, women constitute about 15 percent of the 1.4 million on active duty.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, supported by the president, said he wants to remove as many barriers as possible to the most qualified who want to serve.
Along with ending the ban on openly gay service members in 2011, opening combat roles to women will make the military more inclusive. Our military, and our nation, will be better and stronger for it.