Tuesday, March 25, 2003
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Venus and Mars Episode 365: Equal Opportunity Suffering

Like most viewers of the War on Iraq, I was shocked to see that one of the American POW's captured was a woman - this is new territory in the language of contemporary warfare, and it confronts issues on military life and conduct that were up to now only theoretical. The Trommetter Times wrote on March 24th,
When are the NAG's going to start complaining that the rest of the troops didn't do enough to make sure this woman didn't get captured? Will they make an even bigger stink if she gets raped? I don't think we should be putting women in a position where they might be captured. Call me a male chauvanist [sic] for saying women don't belong in the military, period.
And the conservative Washington Times states,
"The Pentagon was swayed by feminists [to allow women in combat], said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Military Readiness Center, an independent public policy organization that specializes in military personnel issues. "It's bad when a man is captured. But if a woman is captured, she doesn't have the same chance [to defend herself] that a man does," said Mrs. Donnelly. Both Mrs. Donnelly and retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis said when they learned of the woman's capture, they thought about a female POW from the 1991 Persian Gulf war who was sexually assaulted by Iraqis. Col. Maginnis, a Fox News analyst, said no one should be surprised if a female POW is sexually assaulted. "You must consider that women in every society are preyed upon if they are overtaken. ... Now that women are closer to the front lines, they are more subject to becoming captives and being manipulated," he said."
This is esssentially a rehashed version of every "weaker sex" argument we've heard over the past few centuries, where women are seen as soft-minded, easily damaged specimens to be treated with kid gloves and revived with smelling salts when they spy a fleck of blood on a handkerchief. If a man and woman are captured as prisoners of war, both will probably be physically restrained and unable to defend themselves - so what exactly is Mrs. Donnelly suggesting, that women are psychologically and mentally weaker and less able to withstand enemy imprisonment than men? That's a rather offensive and outdated position to take.
"Mrs. Donnelly said it bothers her that Maj. Rhonda Cornum, the flight surgeon for the Army's 2-229th Attack Helicopter Battalion who was captured by Iraqis 12 years ago, didn't tell the public about her sexual abuse for four years. "She was a staunch advocate of women in combat, and she withheld that information. ... If the world had known what happened to her, it might have changed the debate," said Mrs. Donnelly. A second woman captured and later released in the first Gulf war has not said whether she was sexually assaulted, Mrs. Donnelly said."
So the fact that Cornum was taken as a POW wouldn't be enough reason to keep women out of combat, but sexual abuse while a prisoner would be? Give me a break, please. Maybe whether the major was sexually assaulted during her captivity is none of your beeswax, Elaine.

My question is: would a male POW be grilled about whether sexual abuse was one of the indignities he had to suffer? Most likely not; when it occurs, the code of shame and military homophobia are called up to maintain the silence about the painful matter and sweep it under the rug. It's naive to think male-on-male sexual abuse doesn't ever happen to POWs. It happens all the time in prisons and jails, because at its root, rape is primarily about the abuse of power and assertion of dominance over another human being - and it would certainly be as traumatizing to a male soldier as to a woman.

What I find interesting is that even after being subjected to a range of abuses at the hands of the enemy, these women are still advocating for a woman's right to serve in military combat. They are not demoralized basket cases, but staunch members of the military. They are survivors who not only lived to tell their story, but now continue to speak out as active proponents of equal participation, even after suffering the "ultimate abuse".

It's important to remember that the inclusion of women in combat isn't just some avant-garde American feminist liberal concept: they serve proudly in countries around the world, and to deny half a nation the right to fully participate in all aspects of national life is to relegate them to second-class status. Not all women (just as not all men) are the same - just because you can't picture your wife, girlfriend, daughter, sister or niece as a woman in combat doesn't mean someone else can't.

War raises hackles we never ever new we had, and while I don't generally post comments on blogs that are strongly contradictory (I get enough hate mail as it is), I felt compelled to put in my 2 shekels in to the Trommeter Times' commentium:
"...I hear so many people like yourself expressing the opinion that women should not be allowed in combat for the reason that female soldiers are subject to rape. Rape is a truly horrible assault, to be certain, but is sexual violation any worse than the physical and psychological torture that both men (and women) POW's are likely be subjected to? Is rape the -worst- thing that can happen to a person? Not necessarily.

Thousands of women (and children, and some men) are raped and sexually assaulted every day in non-combat situations all around the world, and all come away with varying degrees of bodily and emotional damage. Many, if not most, eventually pick up the pieces and go on with their lives. Those women who have enlisted in the military are aware that some day, active combat is a possibility - as is capture by the enemy.

Well, "some day" has arrived, and the bills are due.

The American women fighting against Iraq are soldiers first. I don't believe that our women in combat require any "special protection" from their male comrades-in-arms on account of their gender, nor should male soldiers be held differentially accountable for protecting the females in their ranks. The military is a unit, and all need to watch their brothers' (and sisters') backs in equal measure. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, Jason, and personally I think if we are going to the trouble of going to war, both the glory and the pain should be an equal opportunity venture."
War is always a horror, for both civilians and combatants - and it's needless to confound the issue of how bad it is to be a prisoner of war by trotting out hoary old chauvinist propaganda.

We should all be working for the soldiers' and POW's safe return. They are counting on us to help them, not to quibble over archaic finger-pointing minutiae. What's necessary today to commit war isn't a well-functioning set of male plumbing. All you need is a finger to push a button or to pull a trigger, and an appropriate frame of mind.