WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–This Veterans’ Day the nation will honor some 2 million women among all those remembered for their service in the U.S. military.
Official records are incomplete, but well over 2,000 of those women died in battles, from the American Revolution and Civil War to conflicts in Panama, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Most were nurses, some served in other support roles. They are already honored with eulogizing plaques and statues holding dyingsoldiers and they are chronicled at the women’smemorial inaugurated in 1997 at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
But the most recent female casualties, the seven who died this year in Iraq, are getting a different reaction.
“It’s an abomination,” says Marine Corps veteran Christopher Check. “A moral society should not be sending its wives and daughters to war.”
Slain Woman ‘More Tragic’
Check, who now works for the conservative Rockford Institute think tank in Rockford, Ill., says a woman coming home in a body bag is “more tragic than a man because it’s contrary to her nature to be there.”
The 1994 repeal of the “risk rule” barring women from combat launched a national debate over a woman’s fitness to serve and the danger her perceived weaknesses posed to male co-combatants. Military women and their supporters fought long and hard to win the repeal and they are still under fire for it.
Check is among the critics, citing examples in a recent paper in the Rockford Institute’s journal Chronicles of “the girl recruit who flat-out refused to navigate a night compass course because she was afraid of the dark; the girl lieutenant who burst into tears when she failed to qualify with the 9mm Berretta, and her Staff Platoon Commander (a girl captain) who consoled the distraught young officer by giving her a hug right there at the pistol range.”
Such discomfort with the “weaker sex” fighting on the front lines grew with the Iraqi captures of Jessica Lynch and Shoshana Johnson. News that Lynch was slapped by her captors and footage of Johnson’s terrified face horrified a public schooled with the axiom that you don’t hit women. Their plight also reignited alarms over Rhonda Cornum’s rape while she was taken prisoner in the first Gulf War. Headlines warned that women prisoners of war, or POWs, were at greater risk than men–despite the long and appalling history of torture and sexual assault visited on male soldiers.
Debate Shifts to Right to Die
But the debate now is not just over a female soldier’s right to fight in battle; it’s also about her right to die in battle. None of the big pollsters has revisited the military women issue since the war began, and none has addressed views on female casualties. Earlier surveys show that a slight majority support lifting the women-in-combat ban, but many polls taken in the past two years echo a 1991 Associated Press survey that found 64 percent thought it was “unacceptable for the United States to send women with young children to the war zone.”
That poll suggests it’s more disquieting for a child to lose a mother than a father in wartime, just as the image of a woman dying while engaged in direct combat makes many more squeamish. During the 1994 debate on lifting the ban, female soldiers themselves were denounced for wanting to go into combat. Now men are taking some heat for letting them.
“Men of America, what’s wrong with you? These women were in Iraq doing your job!” writes United Press International columnist Lou Marano. “Would you send your wife downstairs at 2 a.m. to investigate a suspicious noise? If there’s a fight on the corner, would you send your sister to break it up? It’s the same thing.”
Opinion pieces and letters to the editor abound on the subject, charging men with “hiding behind women’s skirts” and citing what they interpret as biblical exhortations against women fighting and dying in wars. One suggested pink body bags to raise awareness about who is in them.
Military Women Fight Special Treatment
Military women have protested all this attention to their gender. While they have agitated to change a system that perpetuates sexual harassment and assault and to modify facilities and equipment that fail to accommodate their needs, they abhor anything that smacks of special treatment.
Cornum has referred to her Gulf War rape in a way some view as cavalier. “It’s just another bad thing that can happen to you,” she said in a Women’s eNews’ interview in April. But she argues that men too are subjected to sexual abuse by their captors and that focusing on the risk to women serves only to underscore their “weaknesses.”
Likewise, retired Air Force Captain Barbara Wilson says hand-wringing about women soldiers dying in battle is “archaic.”
“Women die all the time in wars. It just doesn’t get noticed when they’re not in uniform,” she says. Wilson, who now maintains an exhaustive Web site on women in the military, notes the way military women who made the ultimate sacrifice in past wars was different.
“They were not holding an M-16 or not standing in a gun turret, that’s the difference,” she says, adding that arming female soldiers is vital.
Whatever the reason for this difference, polls do show public opposition to the war in Iraq rising with the casualty count, something that the losses of female troops may compound.
Gretchen Cook is a freelance writer and radio reporter in Washington, D.C.
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