MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, first lady Michelle Obama has taken on issues like childhood obesity and support for military families in the first term, but some feminists argue she should be doing more. We'll look at the politics of being first lady in just a few minutes.
But first, we turn to some major news from the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is lifting the ban that bars women from serving in combat. Women are currently barred from about one in five active duty positions, according to the Washington Post. So this move could potentially open up tens of thousands of positions to female service members.
For more on this we're joined by Politico's Tim Mak. He reports on defense and national security. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
TIM MAK: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So, Tim, this is being described as an historic change but I want to ask you something from a different perspective, and I don't mean my question to be disrespectful. If you think about the percentage of women in the military, there are only about 14 percent, about 200,000 out of a 1.4 million active duty force. So why is this so significant?
MAK: Well, it's significant because those women who are serving in the Armed Forces are still not allowed to try out for many of the most direct combat roles. If you're a woman in the military, there are just positions that are inaccessible to you. The decision, the announcement, the review that's coming up and its implementation over the next few years will mean that women will be able to stand side by side and be judged on similar qualifications for those posts that they hope to make it into.
MARTIN: It's been reported that the defense secretary decided to lift the ban after receiving the recommendation from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Any sense of why now? Why this now?
MAK: It does seem like an odd time to release an announcement like this. You know, Chuck Hagel, the defense secretary nominee, is going through a controversial confirmation process. And he, very likely, very possibly, will become the next secretary of defense. And Congress was also not informed of this beforehand. Politico did a great story where we talked to Senator Jim Inhofe, who's the Republican ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and he had no clue that this was coming down the line. And Congress you can expect to be a little bit bitter and surprised that they weren't briefed on this beforehand.
MARTIN: So why? Why now?
MAK: There's no good reason that it would happen at this particular moment. It could be simply that the review took place and they wanted to act on it as swiftly as possible. But it's not pegged to any sort of necessity to do it on this day at this point.
MARTIN: You know, it's interesting because women have been arguing that the nature of warfare is such that women have actually been on the front line for some time now. Is that true?
MAK: Well, you know, it really depends on what we consider front lines. The nature of war is changing. If you are in a military base in Afghanistan and you're taking incoming rocket fire, it seems to me that you would be in a combat zone. And while women aren't, for example, infantry officers, they are still involved in some very violent areas, some dangerous regions, and you can consider that combat as well.
What this really does - this review does, is it formalizes something that women who have been serving in dangerous areas have known for quite some time, that they can handle combat roles.
MARTIN: You can understand why the women who are serving would at least like the opportunity to try out for these roles, particularly perhaps some of these elite units where, you know, every male serving on active duty in the military isn't suitable for every job in the military. So you can certainly see where women would say that if you are capable of doing it then you should have the opportunity to try out for it.
But what about on the flip side? Is there some benefit to forced readiness here? I mean, you know, people like John McCain for example, the decorated, you know, Navy veteran, long-time U.S. senator from Arizona who was saying that it's critical that the same high standards that have made the American military the most feared and admired fighting force in the world, particularly the rigorous physical standards for elite special force units have to be maintained. And you can see why he's saying that. So are there implications for forced readiness?
MAK: There are going to be implications for forced readiness, of course, when you make a decision that has this kind of - it's going to have a drastic effect when people are trying out for positions in training. It's going to be a bit of a shock to the military. I think there's no doubt. And that's why you'll see that it creates some controversy, particularly on the Republican side who are concerned that this could affect, for example, unit cohesion or forced readiness.
MARTIN: What's the next step here?
MAK: The next step is to find a way to actually implement this from stage to stage to stage. How will training happen? Which openings - which roles will become available for women recruits immediately and which will take a longer time to come? It seems like Special Forces units and elite commando units will take a longer time to allow women to try out, whereas other combat roles will be more quickly implemented.
MARTIN: And before we let you go, you know, obviously this is very new news. It just broke. But what reaction are you getting from - I'm interested in what both men and women in the service are saying about this.
MAK: Well, you know, this is not something that they expected to happen so quickly. But recently I've been talking to some members of the military - officers and enlisted. And you do get the sense that there is on those soldiers who are apolitical or non-political, that there is going to be a lot of resistance among the male members of the military.
They are concerned that it's going to affect the camaraderie in units, that it's going to lead to some awkwardness in training and force them to be less tactical. It's just an issue that a lot of people in the military will have to grapple with in the next couple of years as this is implemented. It is going to be somewhat disruptive.
MARTIN: Tim Mak is a reporter for Politico. He covers defense and national security. And he was kind enough to join us from his office at Politico, which is in Washington D.C. Tim Mak, thanks.
MAK: Thank you.
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