Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Women in War II: American Soldiers in Iraq

(Second in a series attempting to shame XX Factor bloggers into writing more about the effects of war on women).

From the Washington Post:

"We live and work with the infantry," said Maj. Mary Prophit, 42, who heads a four-person civil affairs team with a Stryker battalion in Mosul. An Army reservist and librarian from Glenoma, Wash., Prophit handles security duties from the hatch of a Stryker armored vehicle, watching houses during searches and returning fire when shot at. "Civil affairs teams have to be prepared to perform infantry functions, because at any time we could be diverted," she said.

In January, Prophit was delivering kerosene heaters to a Mosul school when insurgents detonated a roadside bomb as her convoy passed, fatally wounding three Iraqi soldiers. Prophit moved to shield the medic treating the wounded, firing at insurgents who were shooting at them from a mosque across the street. "Women in combat is no longer an argument," she said matter-of-factly at her camp near the Mosul air field. "There is no rear area."

Martial virtues – bravery, strength, power, glory, camaraderie – although never the exclusive province of men, definitely have been gendered male. That is changing in part because of the efforts of women soldiers fighting and dying for their country. Even those of us who believe the war to be misguided still claim to support the troops. I would argue that a key element of supporting the troops is not forgetting who they are. More than in any previous war, they are women.

The deaths of women soldiers -- more than a hundred since the beginning of the war -- can be particularly poignant. Sgt Princess Samuels died in 2007 in a mortar attack. Her mother said, “I want to know why I’m planning a funeral while George Bush is planning a wedding.” Samuels and others are honored at The Mother's Day Project, an attempt to construct a memorial for fallen women soldiers. Note that “fallen” in 2008 means something very different than it would have in 1958.

Numerous reports suggest that American women at war face the problem of rape. I do not know how to evaluate the accuracy of these reports, but they seem worth discussing (to be fair, Dahlia Lithwick did mention one incident here). Even the possibility of rape suggests that the way women experience war can differ from men.

All of this raises a hosts of questions. What justifies the policy of keeping women out of combat positions when women are clearly experiencing combat anyway? Does the presence of women change the way war is conducted? Do women soldiers change the way we talk about differences between men and women? When we throw out platitudes about "supporting the troops," is there anything we can do to support these troops?

Perhaps the XX factor bloggers will have something to say.