Women in Combat

On Veterans Day, November 11th, I attended a screening of a remarkable new documentary feature, Service: When Women Come Marching Home. This thought provoking work by Marcia Rock and Patricia Lee Stotter examines the role of women veterans with regard to how they transition from active duty to civilian life. This is new territory. We know about the plight of the GIs coming home, mostly men, and this has been chronicled before, from the World War II post-war movie, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), to modern renditions such as The Hurt Locker (2008). But a discussion on the plight of women in our services is still relatively new. Yes, women do serve, with distinction, and they undergo the same travails as their male counterparts, be it casualty-sustaining wounds or PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome).  Yet, they are relegated to the background. It's as if we don't want to acknowledge or confront the fact that they labor and sweat alongside  the menfolk.

After the screening, there was a question-and-answer session regarding the documentary. Along with Ms. Rock and Ms. Stotter, two of the four other ladies featured in the film also took questions from the audience. The two female veterans were Sue Downes and Mariette Kalinowski. Corporal Downes served in Iraq, where she lost both her legs below the knee due to a landmine explosion. Sergeant Kalionowski served two tours as a gunner, manning a 50-caliber machine above a humvee.

During the session, I asked a question, that is always bound to draw a mixed reaction. To wit: if it became official policy that women were to serve in front-line combat, would that changed the perception we have of females serving in a war zone? This question, to me, is the crux of the matter. It is a fiction that women are not serving in combat situations already. The official government policy is that woman do not serve in combat. But, as Ms. Kalinowski and, particular, Ms. Downes show, this is not entirely true. The fact is, we have women facing enemy fire just like the men. This fiction is explained in the policy that women serve in support roles. That is, hauling supplies, doing medevac work, military police, inventory, etc. Except, as the present wars have shown, and Vietnam before that, in a guerrilla war, the people in the rear are just as exposed to enemy attack as those in the trenches. 

The support-role concept goes back to the universal idea we have of women in general. They are the nurturers, the givers, the ones who maintain home and hearth. To think of women as fighters is anathema to some. If the powers that be in the military ever decided that yes, women should legally be in combat, that would change our cultural values and perceptions regarding females. Are we ready for that? Are we ready to accept the notion that our wives, mothers and daughters be trained as killers? Can we view them as such? It would mean a major sea change in our perceptions. Most would say that Americans are not ready for that.  But history has shown differently. In 1948, at Israel's founding, both men and women served in combat situations. In the former Soviet Union, during the Second World War, women fought on the Eastern Front to combat the Nazi menace. The concept of women as warriors in not new; in fact, it's very old.

I have no problems with women serving in actual combat. If a female has the training and the ability, I see no reason why she shouldn't be in a rifle platoon or a special ops unit. Both Ms. Kalinowski and Ms. Downes put a lie to this concept of woman as weak and ineffectual. Ms. Downes lost limbs serving her country. She merited her Purple Heart the same as I and countless others, and received numerous decorations to boot. She had nothing to prove to anyone. She is a warrior. For women like her, and Ms. Kalinowski, who display singular courage, valor and, yes, heroism, they should be welcomed as brothers-in-arms.
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