The Pentagon will now allow women in the US military to fight in direct combat on the front lines, but is this decision actually centuries in the making? The Post’s Dana Priest explains what this watershed moment means for military and American culture. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

Women have been fighting for the United States for years.

They have participated in combat in Iraq, in Afghanistan. Regulations might have kept them away from the front lines of ground combat, but in modern urban warfare, the front line is famously nonlinear. It’s everywhere, and women are in it everywhere it is. Some 150 women have been killed in those two wars.

So the announcement from the Pentagon on Thursday in some ways signaled only a change in nomenclature, codifying actions that are often already in practice. But symbolically, it was seismic.

“We’ve pretty much wiped out all of our federal policies that expressly differentiate between men and women,” says Nancy Duff Campbell, the co-president of the National Women’s Law Center. This was the last.

The masses have reacted with jubilation. Or they have reacted with the opposite — with disgust or fear of what it means.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the end of a ban on women in combat roles. (The Washington Post)

“Some people will see this as another step toward equality,” says Bernard Cook, a Loyola University historian and editor of “Women and War: A Historical Encyclopedia.” “Some people will see it as another example of the decay in our traditional society.”

If women are allowed to fight, can they be forced to? Must they register for the draft? And, if so, should we be raising our daughters differently — so they’re tougher and stronger? And if we have to send all of our children to war, will we think more carefully about which wars we send them to? And if women can truly do this job as well as men can, then does it diminish the inherent usefulness of men? The end of men: the eternal handwringer of the 2010s.

What begins as a debate over who can carry guns, to do what and where, becomes a discussion about what it means to be a man or woman in the United States.

In debates, arguments against the full integration of women into the U.S. armed forces were couched as practicalities: Women were too slight, too small, too fragile to lift heavy packs and — if the situation required — wounded men. (Audie Murphy, one of the most decorated American soldiers in World War II, was 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 112 pounds, but his size presumably stopped being an issue around the same time he used a machine gun to hold off an entire German infantry unit.)

The threat of sexual violence was offered as a companion excuse, one that alludes both to the supposed irresistibility of women (Jezebels, all of them) and to the myth of the innate brutality of men. Men will peacock for women’s attention, the reasoning went, then compete for it and then, potentially, take it by force.

These arguments against gender integration seem — like the concerns raised by any drastic policy change — to be based on fear that whatever we’re heading toward is worse than what we’ll leave behind.

American society holds dear its images of women as keepers of softness. Strength, yes, but soft strength. Women keep the home fires burning, keep calm and carry on in the face of chaos at home and abroad. Women keep their sons and brothers from getting too violent — stop wrestling and set the table — and keep their husbands from giving in to their baser instincts.

“Remember the ladies,” wrote Abigail Adams to her husband, John, as he drafted the future of the country in 1776. “Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.”

“Typically, we think of men as protecting the country and women as nurturing the country,” says Wendy Christensen, a professor at William Paterson University who studies gender and war. Recruiters have long known that the path to a young man’s enlistment goes through his mother’s blessing, Christensen says. “Because it’s the woman’s job to say, ‘Let’s not hurt each other.’ ”

The grieving mother, the shattered widow — these are the totems the country looks toward to remind it that war is bad and that fighting must end.

Perhaps there is some fear that if women are no longer acting as keepers of the peace, the country will completely devolve. Perhaps some imagine that the only things preventing us from utter savageness are several million pairs of ovaries.

“The irony,” Christensen says, is that in her research, she has discovered many women don’t fit conventional female stereotypes. They support wars. They always have, whether or not they were legally allowed to fight in them.

Sometimes, the traditions we fight to preserve are illusory.

It’s worth remember that when Adams urged her husband to remember the ladies, her plea came with a warning. “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies,” she wrote, “we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

The ladies now have representation, and war is no longer a man’s game.