Women's Combat Role on Front Burner
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
June 27, 2005
Washington - With more than 200,000 women serving in the U.S. military, Americans have long been accustomed to seeing them marching in combat boots right alongside men.
But none of that prepared the nation for the grim news that at least four female American troops were killed and 11 others wounded in Iraq late Thursday when a suicide bomber struck a Marine convoy near the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.
The bloodiest attack against American women in more than two years of war in Iraq, the incident highlighted the debate over women in combat.
More than three decades after women began to be integrated into the mainstream Army, many Americans still believe that dying for the flag is men's work and that the institutionalized killing and maiming of women is a form of savagery.
"It's still a question as to whether this is the way we want to go as a nation," said Elaine Donnelly, a leading opponent of placing women in harm's way. "Is it OK to not only condone but to encourage deliberate violence against women, through combat? Is that a step forward for civilization or is it a step backward?"
The answer can depend on who is asked.
Karen Johnson, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women, regards military service as a cornerstone of NOW's fight for equal opportunity and women's rights.
"Serving in the military is a right of American citizenship, and when you limit women's role in the military, you're limiting the opportunity of women to play a full and responsible role as citizens," said Johnson, a retired lieutenant colonel who spent 20 years as an Air Force nurse. "Any position that a women is qualified to do, she should be able to do."
War, said Johnson, makes no gender distinctions.
"I don't know that women are any worse looking in body bags than men are," she said. "The issue really is whether we need to be in Iraq, as opposed to whether women need to be there."
1989 the turning point
From the birth of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II, when 150,000 women served in support functions ranging from clerical work to cryptography under the slogan "Release a Man for Combat", Americans have resisted efforts to use women as warriors.
For years after Vietnam, that wasn't hard to do. U.S. combat engagements were relatively few.
That slowly began to change in 1989, when 770 women participated in the invasion of Panama. While officially assigned to non-combat roles, some took fire as Black Hawk helicopter pilots, and at least one commanded a unit in what the Pentagon dubbed "combat-like" operations, according to the Women's Research and Education Institute, a Washington think tank.
Two years later, George Bush sent 41,000 women, 7 percent of the U.S. force, into what were officially non-combat roles in the first Persian Gulf War.
It wasn't until 1998, though, that women first formally engaged in combat, flying air missions in the "Desert Fox" strikes against Iraq, as they did the next year over Kosovo.
Officially, Pentagon rules still prohibit women from participating in ground combat missions such as infantry fighting or tank operations. Nor are they allowed in support roles, like vehicle maintenance or cooking, that take them to the front lines of war. That policy was relaxed, in effect, a decade ago, when the Pentagon did away with what was called the "risk rule," a provision that exempted women from missions in which they were likely to be taken prisoner or come under fire.
But today, those conditions apply to just about any assignment anywhere in Iraq, a country where there is no front line and entire regions are essentially combat zones with American troops, men and women alike, the targets of almost daily insurgent strikes.
Affecting public opinion
Against that backdrop, there's been a blurring of the lines between what women can and can't do, resulting in increased risk. Of the roughly 1,730 U.S. troops who have died in Iraq so far, about 40 have been women, five times the number of women, all nurses, who were killed in Vietnam. The number includes those killed this past week.
"Like all of our soldiers, they perform magnificently every day," Gen. George Casey, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, shortly before the convoy attack. "We couldn't do what we're doing without them in the positions that they're in."
The American women killed this past week were assigned to Fallujah-area checkpoints, where they provided security searches of Iraqi women out of respect for the Islamic aversion to extramarital contact between men and women.
It wasn't immediately known whether the militants behind the killings meant to target women. Among military strategists, however, it's well understood that the gruesome spectacle of female troops being slaughtered has the potential to demoralize an American public already growing weary of the war and its grinding toll.
With recent polls showing six Americans in 10 already opposed to the war, and the Army falling short of its recruiting goals, the prospect of mounting female casualties adds just one more grisly element to the public opinion equation.
"This is going to affect the decisions that are made on the kitchen tables of Americans on the question of service to our country in the military," said Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a non-profit policy outfit in the Detroit suburb of Livonia. "We're all going to sigh and feel very sad."
Risk of rape
If the question of women in uniform challenges societal precepts in this country, it's turned tradition on its head in the male-dominated Arabic and Islamic culture of Iraq.
The now-infamous photos of Army Pfc. Lynndie England holding a leash tethered to the neck of a naked Iraqi prisoner at Abu Ghraib prison underscored the willingness of some American troops to exploit those differences in abusive and humiliating ways. The tale of one of the war's first prisoners of war, Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, showed the ugly flip side, amid evidence she was sexually assaulted by her Iraqi captors in the opening days of the war.
Lynch has said she was unconscious during much of her ordeal and has no memory of being raped.
"And I don't want people to look at me, in a shameful way, which I had no control over, if it did even, in fact, happen," Lynch told Diane Sawyer of ABC News in a 2003 interview. "But, you know, if it did happen, then people need to know that that's what kind of people that they are, and that's how they treat the female soldiers over there."
That wasn't the part of the Jessica Lynch story the Pentagon wanted aired. The Defense Department had gone out of its way to portray Lynch as a heroine who exemplified the capabilities of female soldiers in the field. Instead, medical evidence of rape pointed to a vulnerability often whispered about within the military but seldom publicly discussed.
Advocates of expanded roles for women in the military don't like to discuss it.
"Once you become a prisoner of war, they may decide to rape you rather than torture you in some other way," said Johnson. "But I'm at risk of rape in Washington, D.C., and not for a noble mission, just because I am female."
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