During a joint press conference today with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to announce the lifting of a Pentagon ban on women serving in combat, Army General Martin Dempsey argued that the long-standing — and soon defunct, if disputed — policy helped create a tiered military culture in which sexual assault and harassment proliferated. Dempsey currently serves as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest position a military officer can hold. "When you've had one part of the population that is designated as warriors and another part that is designated as something else, Dempsey said at the Pentagon, "I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology that, in some cases, led to that environment."

Both the combat ban and the military's epidemic of sexual assault have received recent media attention — the latter was the subject of a full-length film called The Invisible War — but until now no military or political leader has explicitly linked the two. While Dempsey hedged his statement by saying sexual assault is "far more complicated" than his theory suggests, it seems reasonable enough that a separate, elevated warrior caste (present even among servicemembers of the same rank) would cause dysfunction in a deeply hierarchal organization like the military.

Still, it's anyone's guess whether the new policy — which must be implemented within three years, Panetta said — will dramatically lower the number of sexual assaults in the military. Panetta's proposal doesn't open all combat-related positions to women; rather, it lifts the blanket ban that prevented female troops from taking any combat jobs. And while the new rules don't eliminate the military's warrior class — and the harmful dynamic Dempsey believes it creates — they do allow women to officially enter that class (and accrue its prestige), which almost certainly will affect the status, and well-being, of all military women.

Watch Dempsey's statement below: