The New G.I. Janes: Damsel to Dominatrix

One of every seven U.S. soldiers in Iraq today is female. While women are not officially assigned to combat duty, they are increasingly being drawn into dangerous conflicts. This week's debate in Congress over female soldiers in ground operations highlights the expanding role of women in the military.

Serving in combat is one of many important changes for female soldiers in the current war, according to author Carol Burke, who has studied military culture and women's place in it.

A professor at the University of California, Irvine and a former faculty member at the U.S. Naval Academy, Burke wrote a book on the military last year. Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane, and the High-and-Tight: Gender, Folklore, and Changing Military Culture drew considerable attention for its examination of military hazing rituals. Some of the very same rituals -- forming pyramids or being led on a leash, for example -- were staged at Abu Ghraib.

In a recent interview, Burke discussed Abu Ghraib and the role of women there, as well as the little-known experiences of female soldiers in Iraq and the U.S. military.

What are the dominant images of women in this war so far, and how do the images contrast with reality?

With Jessica Lynch, you have the damsel in distress, and the flip side is the dominatrix, which is Lynndie England. Although those two pictures are spun to fulfill a host of stereotypes, what you actually have in this war is a group of real women in the military doing things that are quite significant. There's a whole group of women who -- on the ground, not officially -- the soldiers refer to as the "lionesses of Iraq."

What is their role?

These are women brought in when soldiers go house to house to make inquiries or to apprehend a suspected insurgent. What the female soldier does is quiet the situation. It doesn't look like a gang rape is about to happen. The level of anxiety is diminished slightly, so these women are being used more and more.

Even though these women are not combatants, that is, they are excluded from the infantry, artillery, and armor, commanders are assessing risk, and as the risk abates they're putting in these women to go along with combat units.

These commanders are not engaged in social experiments or in equal opportunity; they are using female soldiers in this way because they're effective and because they need them. That's how military culture is transformed, on the ground.

Is the unpredictable nature of this conflict changing women's roles in the military?

The female soldiers in Iraq are not like World War II WAC and WAVES behind the scenes. The problem with this war is there really is no behind the scenes. They're being used more and more in what looks like regular combat missions. In this war of endless insurgency, women are certainly finding themselves under attack.

Jessica Lynch wasn't a combatant. She was a member of the 507th maintenance company, a company that, in a conventional war with front lines, would have been a good deal removed from the ground war, not in the middle of it.

Those in the military think the war they're fighting now is going to be the kind of war they'll be fighting in the future. For years, the Marine Corps has been training for this kind of war.

What are some other ways the Iraq war is redefining women in wartime?

In the first Gulf War, the press was preoccupied with the departure photograph, the woman leaving her children. It was the desire, not so much on part of the Pentagon but on the part of the media, to cast women as mothers who reluctantly were soldiers.

But in the buildup to Operation Iraqi Freedom, you really didn't see that. I think there is a much greater acceptance of women going to war. What was always used as an argument against women in combat was America's perceived intolerance to women coming home in body bags. Well, flag-draped coffins, whether you've got a female or male in them, are pretty much sorrowful events, and I don't think the American public feels any more sorrow for someone's daughter than for someone's son. Each loss is incredibly profound.

What else are female soldiers experiencing in this conflict in particular?

Another story to be told about women in this current war is the number claiming they've been sexually assaulted, and not by the Iraqis. That has been just appalling. Not only have they reported rapes but the military has not been responsive to their reports. Some female soldiers who were raped even report the denial of appropriate medical attention. If the military is going to post signs in female field showers cautioning women, for safety, to have a "battle buddy" while showering at night, they should, at the very least, supply medics with inexpensive rape kits.

In many cases, it's the same old problem of sexual assault in the military. Whether it's at the Air Force Academy or in the field in Iraq, a woman who reports sexual assault or sexual harassment is often sent back to work with or for the perpetrator and retaliated against by other members of the group.

The organization that has done the most to gather information on these recent assaults, a pernicious kind of gender friendly-fire, is the Miles Foundation.They also keep the statistics on domestic violence and spousal abuse involving members of the military. They testified before Congress on this issue before Abu Ghraib broke last spring.

Did Abu Ghraib document an emerging role for women in warfare, that of sexual predator?

We now know that the infamous photo of Lynndie England leading an Iraqi prisoner around on a leash was cropped and that other soldiers were part of the original scene. We also know that Pvt. Charles Graner, England's former boyfriend, captioned the photo with the quote, "This is what I make Lynndie do." Like the Iraqi prisoners, England, too, was posed, even as the Iraqis were being posed.

What's your take on reports of women interrogating captives in Guantanamo?

Reports allege that there was at least one woman interrogator who tried to sexually arouse or intimidate detainees. Released detainees reported that a woman smeared menstrual blood on the faces of conservative detainees for whom such a practice would ensure certain shame.

What other changes are you seeing for women in the military?

When I was at the Naval Academy, the top marksman for the entire brigade of midshipmen was a female English major. OK, women are quite good at controlled marksmanship. But the Army won't make them snipers because snipers hold "combat" positions, even though the Air National Guard has been sending women to sniper school since 2001. If you had women trained as snipers and allowed them to go out with a unit, you'd instantly have a hero. Everyone loves snipers because they get the guy who's about to get you. Consistently, when properly trained, military women have demonstrated their value.

Is there resistance to the changing role of women in the military?

The loud calls for women's restricted roles have come not from field commanders who have worked with women but from civilian conservatives lobbying to keep women in their places. One such group to enjoy the favor of the current administration goes by the innocuous title of the Center for Military Readiness. Founded by Phyllis Schlafly, it exists to keep women out of combat.

And how do male soldiers react to female military accomplishment or bravery?

I recently had a group of Marines come to one of my classes. I asked about the women they served with. They described most in stereotypical terms, except for one they described as really gung ho. They spoke of her in glowing terms. But in order for her to be one of them, she had to separate herself from the other women. A study on peacekeepers in Kosovo that looked at women's role in international forces found much the same thing. There's the denial of femininity in military culture anyway. It's a powerful culture in which the group rules. Who wouldn't want to have that kind of cohesion in the face of horrible possibilities?

So women are thoroughly entrenched in the military?

Yes, but the other question to ask is, are women transforming this hypermasculine culture? I would say the jury's still out on that.

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