In the wake of the Persian Gulf War of 1991, soldiers who had served there began to report symptoms of illness that became known, collectively and controversially, as Gulf War Syndrome. Nearly a third of the veterans reported one or more of symptoms ranging from fatigue, headache and memory problems through to skin conditions, respiratory problems and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Now a study of American Air Force women who have served in Iraq and elsewhere since March 2003 finds that more than 80 per cent of them may suffer from such symptoms. No less than 89 per cent of a random sample reported suffering from persistent fatigue, while 85 per cent suffered from difficulty concentrating, 83 per cent from fever and 83 per cent from hair loss. Between a quarter and a third also suffered from conditions including muscle pain and stiffness, irritability, loss of energy and headaches.
Penny Pierce, who has been leading research on women veterans since the early 1990s, says it is possible that some unknown environmental factor is the cause of these health problems, “But it is also possible that these symptoms result from the stress of military deployment, especially prolonged and multiple deployments.” One is inclined to agree with her. Why look for something in the water, or the air — unless it’s the smoke of a gun battle or car bomb — to explain what we all recognise as stress symptoms?
Women in close combat
The study findings put the spotlight again on women’s role in the military, especially their deployment in theatres such as Iraq and Afghanistan — and perhaps soon in the Caucasus — where wars drag on and where women are increasingly exposed to combat, even though they are officially excluded from front line duties. The “front line” in the old sense no longer exists in places like Basra or Helmand. It is as close as the nearest ambush or suicide bomber — “right outside the camp gates or 50 miles away,” said a British major recently.
He was commenting on the death of British intelligence officer Sarah Bryant, 26 and married, who became the first British servicewoman killed in Afghanistan when the armoured vehicles she and three (male) SAS reservists were travelling in were hit by a roadside bomb. They were on a secret counter-terrorism mission. Other servicewomen have been killed in similar circumstances. A few have been captured — famously, Private Jessica Lynch. Others have distinguished themselves by bravery: in 2005 Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester used her M4 assault rifle to deadly effect and earned herself America’s Silver Star for exceptional valour. A few have disgraced themselves: Private Lynndie England joined the boys at Abu Ghraib in tormenting Iraqi prisoners and went to jail for it, demonstrating that war service is indeed a great leveller.
These women are the face of an increasing female presence in the military. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War it leapt from two per cent to nine per cent of the US forces and now stands at 15 per cent. The figure for Britain is around 10 per cent and for Australia nearly 13 per cent. Career opportunities have opened up for women. Penny Pierce is a case in point: a flight nurse in the Air Force Reserve who served six months in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, she now has the rank of colonel. She is also an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing and a faculty associate at a related research institute.
Is there gain for this pain?
It is important to know whether the march of women into the remaining male preserves of the military represents a gain for them and for their countries. That means, among other things, monitoring the effects on women of serving in theatres of war and how this influences retention rates (women leave at three to four times the rate of men) and the services that veterans need. It means discovering whether women are more affected than men by deployment and warfare and, if so, how exactly the military and society should respond to that. If women are more seriously affected, does it indicate that role distinctions between men and women are necessary and justified after all? Or does it call for changes in the structures of military life — if not the conduct of war itself — to accommodate the special needs (never “weaknesses”) of women and give scope to their unique strengths?
If Pierce is any guide in this discussion, the trend is good and there is no problem that money and a change of attitudes can’t fix. Although there is not much data yet on whether women experience more stress from war service, she doubts it. She believes they merely experience it differently and have their own way of coping with it over time, as one study indicates. Nor does she think ambushes and killing and exploded bodies are a unique source of stress to women; rather it is deployment itself that causes them most stress because it separates women from their families and disrupts their social support systems. Her solution: “By identifying problems early, I hope our findings will guide policy-makers and health care professions to design interventions to support service members and their families.”
In other words, the military and society must adapt to the specific needs of women soldiers rather than vice versa. They must come up with working conditions and family benefits that make the theatre of war a level playing field for women and, consequently, open the doors still shut to female advancement and power.
The sacrificial victim: family life
Well, we are used to that way of looking at things by now, thanks to the gender equity school of thought to which Pierce, as her writing indicates, belongs. She is a talented woman and the theory has evidently worked for her, as her rank demonstrates. Congratulations to her, then, and good luck to the minority of military women who aspire to the top brass. But what does their equality campaign mean for the majority of women — the Jessica Lynchs and Lynndie Englands — who enter the ranks because they need a job but who also aspire to marriage, motherhood and family life?
Pierce reports that of her study sample of 1114 Air Force women veterans, about 36 per cent had a dependent child at the time they were sent overseas. In an earlier report (2006), where the number of participants was 1318, she reveals that 102 of the children were under three years of age and 148 were aged three to five; another 134 were between six and eight years old.
No wonder their mothers were stressed! We have seen them on television, the young servicewomen tearfully kissing their babies and little children — and husbands, if they have them, since some of those deployed are single parents — as they leave for a tour of duty, and very strange and cruel it seems. How the women must long for their babies — and how the infants and older children must long for their mothers. Pierce says somewhere that although children suffered stress initially, two years later they were “fine”. So the suffering of the children didn’t matter because they got over it? It was a necessary sacrifice for the cause of women warriors? That puts children in their place, doesn’t it.
And what of the husbands left behind? While trying to be mother and father to their children they have reason to worry whether their wives will become one the — thankfully still rare — female casualties of war; be captured, tortured, traumatised; molested or raped by fellow soldiers; or even form a relationship with someone else. If the dangers from the enemy are things that women have to worry about when it’s they who are keeping the home fires burning, the dangers of sexual assault from colleagues and infidelity among men and women living in close quarters are new concerns arising directly from a completely unnecessary form of equality. There is a place for women in the military, but it is not toting assault rifles with men on the front line.
Despite the serious threats to family life, gender feminists have no intention of retreating from their campaign to liberate the military. Pierce says childcare and other family-friendly policies can take care of the domestic issues. Cost is no obstacle, apparently. Sexual harassment must be dealt with by de-masculinising military culture. “Myths” about women and their roles, including motherhood, will be dispelled as military women “construct identities” consistent with their ambitions. The debate over women’s suitability for military missions is, she declares, “becoming largely academic”.
Tell that to the women marines returning from service in Iraq and trying to re-establish trust with their young children while battling with the aftermath of intense stress. Do the studies ask them what they think of the identity they are constructing? It would be interesting to hear their answers.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.