Some twitter folks were linking to this piece on Women in Combat this morning, and it reminded me of an earlier post here. While I think the equity argument is an important one--that serving in combat is required for folks to become leaders and if we keep women out of formal combat positions, we are ensuring that they cannot rise that far--my point here is more about modern combat. Because the US is so superior in conventional capabilities, most conflicts down the road will be unconventional ones, which has two effects relevant here.
First, the line between combat and non-combat positions is beyond silly at this point. As Vietnam showed and Iraq/Afghanistan reinforced, the distinction between the "front" and the "rear" is largely irrelevant. Women have been in combat for much of these wars. Indeed, even in the opening offensive in Iraq, women were in harm's way as truck drivers and providing other logistical support. The article linked above provides plenty of evidence to support this notion that the only folks who believe there is a separation between combat and non-combat positions are in the US Congress. This parallels the distinction between the International Security Assistance Force and Operation Enduring Freedom--two different missions that cannot really be distinguished except by European legislators imposing restrictions on their contingents.
Which gets to the second point: these restrictions in the US military serve as the equivalent of the caveats for which we have been castigating our European allies. We have imposed a restriction on how we deploy (sans women in combat), which matters a great deal, especially in countries where the local women will not talk to foreign men. Our military women not only serve as important role models, but also as important conduits of information from Afghan women to our intel folks. The US Marines have tried various tactics to avoid the US legal restrictions, but it is not easy.
Just as in the gays in the military debate, framing this as rights and equity may not be the only way to proceed. We need to remember that women not only can do stuff as well as men, but in some cases are indispensable. Restrictions on their involvement in combat have hurt the war effort. So, the folks who argue against women in combat (ignorant on so many levels) are actually anti-American in that they are advocating that we go to war with fewer weapons at our disposal.
UPDATE: Count the Aussies as being ahead of the US curve--just announced decision to allow women to serve in combat units.