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Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, four female service members sued the Defense Department on Tuesday for the right to fight in combat units, just like their male counterparts. Since 1994, there's been a ban on women being assigned to combat units, and this is the second case this year seeking to overturn it.

The women and the ACLU say that bombs and bullets know no gender, and keeping women off the front lines makes little sense in wars like Afghanistan, where front lines hardly exist. "It's harming women in the field now," ACLU staff attorney Elizabeth Gill told US News. "Our clients in this case have served in capacities where they're shot at by enemy fire, they're engaged, they're attached to combat units. They're fighting in exactly the same circumstances as men but they're not recognized for that work."

She has a point. Women make up 14 percent of the military's 1.4 million active personnel, and they fight and die just like their male counterparts. They're also barred from nearly a quarter of a million positions within the military because they're not allowed to take combat arms positions. Things get even more difficult for women, when it comes to officer posts. About 80 percent of general officers aree promoted from combat units like infantry, artillery and special operations commandos, meaning that women have little chance to climb the ranks. "Why would we want to stop our military from selecting the top people for jobs?" asked Zoe Bedell, a retired Marine Corps captain and one of the plaintiffs in the case. "We are asking for the chance to compete for the same jobs as men. This benefits our military by having people in positions not because of an irrelevant factor like gender, but because of their demonstrated abilities."

From the military's point of view, it's more complicated than that, though. On one hand, opponents of gender equality in combat say that there are some reservations about whether or not women can handle combat like men can. The first two women to attempt the Marine Corps' 13-week combat training course couldn't physically handle it and dropped out. Somewhat related is the fear that women would distract men men from their duties in the field, but it's unclear if this is an unfounded fear or a reality. General James Amos from the Marines has commissioned a survey of 53,000 troops to hear their thoughts on the matter, but those results haven't been released.

There is one other grizzly reality. The military has a very big problem with sexual assault, a problem that some think would be made worse if women were put on the front lines with men.  The stresses of battle, some say, push men to treat their female counterparts differently than they would back at camp. The Pentagon estimates that 19,000 sexual assaults happened within the military in the military last year, though as few as 250 lead to actual convictions. In fact, only 3,192 were even reported, and many of those cases result in the dishonorable discharge of the woman. It's clearly not a problem that the military wants to take any chances at making worse. The Washington Post's Melinda Henneberger wonders, "Yet the solution cannot be keeping women out of the sight of male soldiers; who would that punish? And what would it prove?"

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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