Fantasies of Male Chivalry Ignore the History of Women in Wartime





4-30-12

Heather Marie Stur, Ph. D., is assistant professor of history and fellow in the Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi.  She is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011).

No American institution subscribes more to heroic notions of masculinity than the armed forces.  The starkest example of this in the last decade was the Jessica Lynch saga. The Army and the media overlooked the fact that another (black) woman was taken prisoner with Lynch, while a third woman was killed outright during the ambush where they were captured. What was important to the Army, the media, and the American public was that U.S. special forces, exclusively comprised of male troops, rescued a young, white, American woman who was held captive by enemy Iraqis.

The Lynch rescue jibes with Rick Santorum’s relatively recent statements opposing the opening of combat positions to women. In a twist on the tired argument that women are too emotional to handle combat, the former Pennsylvania senator (and now former presidential candidate) has argued that it is actually men whose emotions might get the better of them were they to fight side by side with female comrades. He said this in an interview: “When you have men and women together in combat, I think men have the emotions when you see a woman in harm’s way. I think that’s something that’s natural, that’s very much in our culture to be protective.” According to Santorum’s argument, if women are allowed to hold official combat positions, they might cause their male counterparts to lose sight of the mission at hand out of a desire to protect them. Could the SEALs who rescued Lynch have seen her as a soldier?

What Santorum’s comments miss is that women have always been in combat zones, as military personnel and as civilians. Although officially barred from combat specialties in the armed forces, American women have always served close to, if not on, the front lines in conflicts -- as the wives of Civil War soldiers encamped with units and working as washerwomen and cooks; as nurses in the Army and Navy medical corps in World War II, serving in hospitals that doubled as enemy targets; as Red Cross volunteers deployed to remote fire support bases to boost the morale of infantry troops waiting for battle in Vietnam; and in various support positions attached to combat battalions in America’s most recent wars.  

Take, for example, the women who served in the Red Cross Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas (SRAO) program in Vietnam. They were known to U.S. troops as “donut dollies,” a nod to the Red Cross tradition of sending women to serve coffee and donuts to servicemen. Officially, donut dollies were meant to symbolize the girl next door, the American innocence U.S. troops were fighting to protect from communism. Wearing light blue cotton dresses, these young women rode in jeeps and helicopters to fire support bases, Vietnam’s “front lines” of combat, in order to provide moral support to infantry troops. No donut dollies were killed in combat, but their presence at the remote bases challenges the notion that war has ever been a strictly male realm. Consider, also, the experiences of women military personnel in Vietnam. Nurses regularly came under attack because hospitals were targets of enemy fire. First Lieutenant Sharon Lane died from shrapnel wounds after the 312th Evacuation Hospital in Chu Lai was attacked in June 1969. Women’s Army Corps personnel (WACs) remember diving into bunkers and waiting out rocket attacks before returning to their jobs as book keepers, map makers, and typists. In the past fifty years, the combat experience has not been limited to frontline infantry.

After the Vietnam-era draft ended, the armed services stepped up their recruitment of women, and in 1975, women were admitted to the service academies. In 1978, the WAC was dissolved, and women were fully integrated in the regular Army. Today, 15 percent of the U.S. armed forces are women, and more than 200,000 have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, some in units that support infantry troops, effectively putting them in the combat zone. More than 130 female personnel have been killed and more than 700 wounded in America’s twenty-first-century wars. Opening combat positions to women will allow them to apply for promotions that require official combat service, one of the last barriers to gender equality in the military.

It also could have a broader cultural impact by causing us to rethink the ways we define men and women. At its root, the debate over women in combat is about gender roles -- what is appropriate for men and women to do in wartime. It is also about symbolism -- what the American soldier symbolizes about U.S. power and military strength. Although American women have made gains in the armed services, soldiering remains linked to aggressive heterosexual masculinity, part of a gender structure that is responsible for the shameful realities of sexual assault and rape against women military personnel perpetrated by their male comrades.  Despite Santorum’s assertion that men are innately programmed to protect women, the soldier culture connecting gunslinging to manly sexual expression has repeatedly resulted in the injury of women. It also confines men to one identity and has been used to justify the outright exclusion of gay men from the military and policies like “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Perhaps envisioning women as soldiers in all senses of the word will lead to the reimagining not just of the image of the military, but of how we define masculinity and femininity.


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