How can you ask a woman to be the last woman to die for a mistake?

In this undated photo released by The University of Miami, a white shark cruises underwater in search of prey in Guadalupe, Mexico in 2007. (AP Photo/University of Miami, Neil Hammerschlag)

On Monday, President Obama hailed the pioneers who in 1848 first fought for women's rights at Seneca Falls.

On Wednesday, Obama's Pentagon sent America's female troops charging up Hamburger Hill, metaphorically speaking.

Leon Panetta, the outgoing defense secretary, has decided that for the first time U.S. women troops will be eligible for front-line combat infantry or artillery jobs that have long been restricted to men -- first by tradition and after 1994 by official Pentagon policy, according to multiple news accounts.

The move will not be publically announced until Thursday and will take some time - possibly as long as three years -- to implement, but it's clearly a landmark event in the centuries-long fight for women's equality in America.

The move is also a bit of a mind-bender — effusively praised by many liberals who've also marched over the years to have fewer Americans of any gender waging front-line conflict overseas.

Timothy Lange, writing on the popular progressive blog Daily Kos, hailed the decision, noted that female soldiers have already been lauded for bravery under fire while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, but then added: "Now, if only we could engage in fewer wars for them and men in uniform to fight."

The irony, of course, is that as female enlistment in the armed forces has increased over the last couple of generations while U.S. military operations have expanded overseas, women have already engaged in combat - and died. In fact, it's estimated that roughly 20,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, with more than 800 wounded and some 130 killed.

Indeed, the story of America's post 9/11 military actions are laced with tales of "womanity," of bravery like Capt. Allison Black who — despite the restrictions — navigated a AC-130H gunship to fight off the Taliban in Afghanistan, and of loss like Cpl. Jennifer Parcell, who was making security checks in Iraq's Al Anbar Province and died when one exploded a suicide vest.

In the 1970s, the notion that a woman like Parcell would die in a war was a main argument of those who led the successful fight to reject the proposed Equal Rights Amendment.

Now, the decision to be announced by Panetta - opening up as many as 238,000 front-line slots that were once reserved only for men - is clearly a victory for equal rights, without the capital letters. It ensures that more female soldiers and sailors will win well-deserved promotions to combat leadership roles and ultimately to top brass.


It feels kind of kind of bittersweet that this is the biggest victory for women's rights in this generation — when we've devoted such little energy to ending the rampant spirit of militarism that has sent so many men and women into conflicts that have dwarfed World War II in length — wars that polls now show a majority of Americans think weren't worth it.

Maybe the thought of someone’s daughter dying on the battlefield will make policy makers think twice before the next misadventure - but I seriously doubt it.

Ironically, it was the likely new secretary of state, Sen. John Kerry, who famously asked in 1971 after fighting in Vietnam: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Time marches on. Today, we can ask ourselves: How do you ask a woman to be the last woman to die for a mistake?