Kirby Dick's documentary The Invisible War has brought long-overdue attention to the problem of sexual assault in the armed forces. Unfortunately, however, the film gives short shrift to two of the major groups of victims -- men and women of color -- which reinforces common myths about rape and makes addressing the problem all the more difficult.
UPDATE: January 23, 2013
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that it would lift the ban on women in combat. This landmark decision reverses the 1994 "direct ground combat rule," which held that "women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground."
The policy change is long overdue. The last few decades had made the ban largely irrelevant; increasing counterinsurgency warfare virtually erased the concept of combat front lines and female soldiers' contributions to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were undeniable. The policy had nevertheless continued to officially exclude women from 7.3 percent of army positions, largely in Infantry, Armor, and Special Forces. More importantly, it had limited women's career paths and promotion opportunities and contributed to gendered stereotypes about war as ultimately "the business" of men.
The decision to remove the exclusion now is a sound one based on careful consideration of several factors. Specifically, there was increasing support from within the military leadership -- including from Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense, and Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who had both acknowledged that now is the time to remove gender-based barriers to service. There have also been distinct changes in public attitudes about women's capabilities and roles in war. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, the vast majority of Americans support allowing women into combat roles. Meanwhile, studies by the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine and the U.S. Government Accountability Office, along with various military and academic experts, have dispelled myths about women's impact on unit cohesion and their physical abilities. It could not have hurt, of course, that the Department of Defense is facing a lawsuit from several female service members (backed by the American Civil Liberties Union) who rightly claim that the exclusion was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
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