Women warriors

"Americans are no longer especially shocked by the idea of a woman's violent death."

Published September 25, 2006 12:30PM (EDT)

"Jane, We Hardly Knew Ye Died," the New York Times Week in Review lamented on Sunday, remarking on the limited attention paid to female soldiers killed in Iraq. Sixty-five of the 2,701 U.S. military casualties in Iraq so far have been women -- a small percentage of the overall total, but a higher number of female casualties than in any previous conflict. (By contrast, eight servicewomen died in Vietnam.) "Despite longstanding predictions that America would shudder to see its women coming home in coffins," Times writer Lizette Alvarez observes, "Americans are no longer especially shocked by the idea of a woman's violent death."

Alvarez suggests the shift in American attitudes is due in part to public awareness that the military is stretched thin and "women are sorely needed in this modern-day insurgent conflict." Additionally, Americans' not-in-my-backyard mentality may contribute to the increased tolerance for female casualties; military sociologist Charles Moskos told the Times, Americans "would rather have someone else's daughter die than their son."

But the military's own gender divide is also diminishing, at least from a strategic standpoint. Center for Military Readiness director Elaine Donnelly told the Times, "We are asking far more of our female soldiers than ever before in history," claiming that the Pentagon is "openly flouting current policy" and sending women into combat situations illegally. Women in the military still face unique obstacles, from sexual harassment and assault to the safety hazards of ill-fitting equipment. (Alvarez notes that biology can also be a hassle: "Some women use newer forms of birth control to make their periods less frequent.") But retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning told the Times that though "a lot of the social conservatives have powerful feelings about training mothers to kill," there's likely to be a policy shift on women in combat. "The next door to open is ground combat," Manning said. "That's the last frontier."

From this perspective, there may be a small silver lining to the costly, carnage-ridden occupation of Iraq: It may end up making military service more egalitarian. The next time the Pentagon addresses women's fitness for fighting, Alvarez writes, "the military will have real-life data on the performance of women in the field to supplant the hypotheticals."

Alvarez notes that the deaths of 65 servicewomen in Iraq "have stirred no less -- and no more -- reaction at home" than the deaths of servicemen. It's appalling that Americans have grown numb to the human cost of war. But the fact that our national denial is equal opportunity may be a grim sign of progress.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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