On Jan. 23, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, acting with the full support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, struck down the Defense Department’s ban on women serving in combat roles. He did the right thing.

Though critics, largely conservative, have attacked the decision as idealistic and damaging to the effectiveness of the military, that could not be further from the truth. The current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fostered a different meaning for the term “combat.” Reality tells us no that there are no longer clear battle lines beyond which the bullets will fly.

The simple fact is that women are already often serving in combat roles, though not named as such. They are already routinely attached to patrols in dangerous areas through bureaucratic loopholes. Over 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and 152 have died as a result of battle.

In a testament to the pure value of women in the field, General Martin P. Dempsey, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Jan. 28 that “the Joint Chiefs are unanimous in their judgment that the time has come to remove unnecessary barriers to service based on gender alone. This is about using the talent and skills of women in the military in order to make our military even better than it is today.”

It is difficult to imagine a reasonable argument for why women should be barred from certain roles when America’s top military leaders, who have deep knowledge of the current wartime situation, believe such restrictions need to be dismantled.

Panetta’s landmark decision has another side to it that is less immediately apparent to those outside of the military hierarchy. Female officers have repeatedly found that their ability to rise in rank in a fair manner has been hamstrung by regulations that require applicants to command positions to have faced combat. Even though many such women have actually been in the line of fire, the military has refused to recognize any such service as legitimate. Such discrimination is the subject of a court case brought against the Department of Defense in 2012 by several female officers, alleging that their discrimination was damaging and unconstitutional.

It is simply counterintuitive, in light of the current lack of recruits in the U.S., that some of our brave soldiers should be told that their capability and usefulness in warfare is entirely dependent on their gender. Those who argue against the capacity of women to perform under the duress of combat ought to be discredited with the same vitriol that we now view those who once proclaimed that the female mind was too weak to handle the right to vote.

This change will better the military; the consequence will be a greater diversity of skill, with women trying their hand at positions they would not have been considered for earlier. Sixty years ago it was absurd to think that women could become fighter pilots, and now such a thing is hardly remarkable. What is most important in the military is an individual’s ability to perform a task effectively. The capacity to serve under fire needs to be based on merit rather than anything else.