Women warriors

Anna Quindlen

February 05, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

THE MORNING shows, the late-night shows, the radio call-in shows -- all of them were out rounding up women, as though they were casting one of those distaff buddy movies Hollywood was fond of for a moment.

Women officials. Women professors. Women soldiers. A woman

had reportedly been taken prisoner in the Persian Gulf. Biology, if not destiny, was at least newsworthy.

Stop the presses: Women really are at war. It's a little like the talking dog; no one seems to care how well she does it, only that she does it at all.

There are 27,000 women just doing their jobs in the gulf; we should know this by now because they have been photographed and interviewed out of all proportion to their numbers.

But the hard facts of women waging war seem to come home most keenly now, when one may be in the hands of the enemy. All these years the Pentagon has insulated us from that scenario with rules barring women in combat. What they didn't say was that in modern warfare, combat can be everywhere.

There's been an interesting side effect of war in the Persian Gulf. Just as it has distilled combat to its fast-forward essence -- can it be only two weeks since we've been at this? -- it has also writ large changes in society.

We have talked for a decade about the extraordinary difficulties of the new American family, but they have been dramatized by couples going together to Saudi Arabia and leaving children behind. We have discussed and discussed the revolution in the lives of American women, and in our attitudes toward what it means to be female. Women at war make us think again, about how much we have changed, and how little.

One of 10 soldiers today is a woman. They have turned to the service for some of the same reasons minorities have: for college money, technical training, a way out of a pink-collar ghetto filled with dead ends. Their decision has got mixed reviews.

Some feminists believe it means that women have sunk to the level of men, that the role of women in wartime is to say, "This is wrong."

Those men who long for the 19th century believe this shows that the armed forces have fallen on hard times, that women at the mercy of tides and lunar cycles will be unable to power a supply truck.

Most people recognize the military for what it is. It's not an adventure; it's a job.

Until we get to the what ifs.

Well, we've got to the what ifs now: a 20-year-old Michigan woman, a former high school ROTC cadet, missing, presumed captured. Her parents may well curse their imaginations at this moment, thinking of what the Iraqis might do to her.

Saddam Hussein lives in a world in which women's liberation is a contradiction in terms, in which a woman with her sleeves rolled up is considered a rebuke to her creator.

Perhaps this will inspire him to treat any female prisoners like pack animals. Or perhaps the paternalistic attitudes of the Muslim world may lead him to tread more carefully. In sexism will be salvation.

I've heard it said that the American public is not ready for this, as though we long ago made our peace with beaten and tortured men. But thinking about women prisoners is tough for some of us , and that is because the revelations of social change that have come with this war are revelations of changes not fully accepted.

Any heightened horror at women warriors is tinged with a double standard. It assumes somehow that the travails of men are less heartbreaking than those of women.

That is insulting to men, and to the people who love them. It assumes that some Americans, for whatever reason, are more tormented by the vision of a woman in a body bag than a man in one.

That happens to be true.

There are so many double standards in this binary society, and the military has taken full advantage of this one. Rules barring women from combat units were designed specifically to meet public comfort levels, the comfort level of the military, too.

As Rep. Pat Schroeder says, "By pretending they were #i protecting women from harm, all they were really protecting them from was promotions." To become a Stormin' Norman, you have to have flown the bombing raids, led the troops through the jungles.

Thousands of women who have chosen the service as their life's work face sanctioned job discrimination, a glass ceiling permitted by statute.

But this war has already shown that the Pentagon policy is designed for the comfort level of a world that has ceased to exist, whether we all like it or not.

Women will fight. Women may die. One woman may already be held prisoner. Sometimes the realities of life outstrip our perceptions. That is manifest when you consider this: A female POW could come home to a parade, a medal and the disclaimer that she is not fit for combat.

In other words, insult as well as injury.

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