Female Trouble
Women in war face worse risks than men.


Many Americans were surprised to learn of the plight of an enlisted woman captured as the first female prisoner of war in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Army Specialist Shoshana Johnson, 30-year-old single mother of a two-year-old daughter, was seen on videotape, terrified, in the hands of Iraqi irregulars. Her captors had just killed and desecrated the bodies of several soldiers taken prisoner when their Army maintenance unit went astray on March 23.

Later came the news that Pfc. Jessica Lynch, a supply clerk, is missing from the same unit. These women and their surviving colleagues are in mortal peril, but leave it to doctrinaire feminists to celebrate their plight as a “victory” for women’s rights. Such is the tone of a New York Times opinion piece, titled “The Pinking of the Armed Forces.” This bit of feminist fatuity, published on March 24, is hereby nominated for the year’s “Most Clueless Editorial” award.

The Times hailed the capture of Specialist Johnson as an opportunity to smash the “glass ceilings” which have restricted women from being “employed” in Bruce Willis-type roles in real-life combat. And with irresponsible bravado — so typical of civilian feminists eager for other women to face the enemy — the editorial suggested that with the help of “sophisticated weaponry,” women just might “outperform” their male counterparts. You would think Billie Jean King was still battling it out on the tennis court with chauvinist Bobby Riggs.

Someone at the Times has been watching too many feminist fantasy films. Take G.I. Jane, a fictional portrayal of a shaved-head heroine (Bruce Willis’s then-wife Demi Moore) surviving the ordeal of training as a Navy SEAL. In a typical Hollywood vision, we see the comely character, shimmering wet in the shower, casually talking with her slack-jawed commanding officer. How else to explain the Times’s easy dismissal of concerns about healthy men and women being “distracted” in close combat?

Americans are now praying for the swift and safe return of our POWs, male and female. No one should be surprised, however, that Spec. Johnson and Pfc. Lynch are now at the mercy of Iraqi captors. These brave but unfortunate women are facing a misogynist culture and a ruthless regime — one unlikely to comply with the Geneva Convention requiring humane treatment for prisoners of war.

Current news brings to mind the story of Army Col. Rhonda Cornum, a flight surgeon captured during the 1991-92 Gulf War. Then-Maj. Cornum, a staunch advocate of women in combat, was subjected to “sexual indecencies” within hours of her capture. She was released eight days later, but said nothing in public about the sexual assault for more than a year.

Advocates of women in combat often talk about “sharing the risk” of war, but the truth is that women face unequal and greater risks. The vulnerabilities unique to women can and probably will be exploited by enemy captors in this and similar situations as the war on terrorism continues.

All of this is happening because rules governing the assignment of women in the military were changed dramatically during the Clinton administration. Prior to 1994, the various services had definitions of “direct combat” that included such elements as physical proximity with hostile forces, reconnoitering the enemy with an inherent risk of capture, and engaging the enemy with fire, maneuver, or shock effect in contested territory, waters, or airspace.

The exact definition of combat is important, since close combat is more than the experience of being shot at or operating in a war zone. But in 1994, then-secretary of defense Les Aspin redefined “direct ground combat,” and eliminated “inherent risk of capture” as a factor to consider in exempting women from serving in units previously defined as close combat.

To open up even more “career opportunities” for women, Secretary Aspin also eliminated the Defense Department’s “Risk Rule” — a regulation intended to exempt women in non-combat positions from being assigned close to the front lines. Because of these changes, thousands of military women will be serving at greater risk in Iraq than anyone would have expected less than a decade ago.

The 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces voted against the use of women in combat for many reasons. In summary, women do not have an equal opportunity to survive, or to help fellow soldiers survive. The commission’s biggest concern, however, was the risk of capture and brutality uniquely cruel to women.

A majority of commissioners recognized that acceptance and encouragement of violence against women at the hands of the enemy would be not a step forward for women, but a step backward for civilization. The Clinton administration ignored the commission’s report, and Congress failed to schedule full-scale hearings on its findings and recommendations.

Now a real war is in progress, and the unwise policies ordered by Clinton and Aspin are being put to the test. The technological advances in Operation Iraqi Freedom have been truly amazing. But all the social engineering in the world cannot change the fact that there is nothing “fair” or “equal” about warfare.

Margaret Thorne Henderson, Spec. Johnson’s aunt, told Fox News that Shoshana had joined the Army to be a chef. Since soldiers must do what they are told, the young mother was “cross-trained” for a maintenance unit in support of the infantry. Mrs. Henderson, herself a 20-year veteran of the Air Force, calmly asked for and inspired prayers for her niece nationwide.

Pentagon officials and Congress could help by ignoring the doctrinaire daydreams promoted by the New York Times. Our women in uniform face unequal risks, and the American people need to think hard about what that really means.

Elaine Donnelly, a former member of the 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces, is president of the Center for Military Readiness. CMR is an independent public-policy organization specializing in military personnel issues.


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