When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride, He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside. But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail. For the female of the species is more deadly than the male. –from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Female of the Species,” 1911.
Greek mythology includes the tale of how Achilles’ mother attempted to save him from the call to arms for the Trojan War by dressing him in women’s clothes. His true gender was revealed when Odysseus, disguised as a peddler, brought out feminine attire, jewelry, and a shield and spear for sell, and Achilles went directly to the armaments.
The 1996 Emmy award winning PBS series “The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century” documented the origins of psychology by recalling the introduction of “the talking cure” to World War I combat veterans to heal their mangled psyches. As part of their rehabilitation, they engaged in such feminine past times as basket weaving and knitting, before progressing on to the more “manly” pursuits of handling fire arms and martial pursuits. Throughout history, the enterprise of settling intra-national disputes has been considered the bastion of masculinity.
Perhaps this reservation of warfare to the dominion of men came about out of necessity. Men after all, cannot give birth, and to counterbalance their exclusion from this specialized function, they assumed the role of defender and took up the science of arms. Since facility with ancient armaments necessitated upper body strength, it might also be argued that this was a natural progression in the division of labor (although the advent of modern technology has made physical strength less of an advantage in contemporary warfare).
And yet, women still played a part in the conduct of warfare, if only through the provision of food, medical assistance, and supplies (an old, unwritten military adage states that if you kill an army’s support, you defeat the enemy). Traditional thinking allows that this is the natural order of things, because of the natural aggression (in men) and passivity (in women); modern feminists however might argue that these traits have been reinforced via cultural conditioning over generations.
At any rate, women’s involvement in this most violent of civilization’s activities was traditionally regarded as an adjunct to warfare.
Twentieth century military doctrine changed dramatically as the phenomenon of asymmetrical warfare took hold, displacing the idea of a traditional “front” of the battlefield where most of the hostilities could be expected to take place. Virtually all of America’s opponents since World War II have been inferior in terms of resources and numbers of personnel they brought to the conflict, which dictated different tactics.
This, along with the trend toward guerrilla warfare and a desire to even the odds has meant that traditional noncombatants (i.e. women) would not be safe simply because they were stuck “in the rear.”
Although warfare has traditionally been men’s domain and the foremost stage on which to assert one’s masculinity, women regularly stepped outside of their assigned roles. Norse mythology nurtured sagas of the Valkyries, female warriors appointed to determine which Vikings would die in battle, and be allowed passage to Valhalla (heaven), where they would feast at an eternal banquet drinking mass quantities of beer provided by their female hosts.
The Greeks spun tales of the Amazons, a nation of all-female warriors, who cut off their breasts to facilitate better use of their long bows, spears, and swords and participated in the Trojan War.
These legendary figures had their real life counterparts across the globe, most notably in Africa, where the Dahomean Kingdom in what is now the modern Republic of Benin was distinguished by its legendary warrior class of women soldiers, whose bravery and skill at battle rivaled their male counterparts. European colonialists who, encountered them starting in the 1600s, were so impressed with their martial proficiency that they dubbed the women Amazons as an homage to the mythological tribe of Grecian lore.
In sharp contrast to conventional gender specialization, training (in coordination with the tenants of the Polytheistic Vodun religion now known in the Western Hemisphere as Voodoo) was geared to enhance the aggressive traits desired for combat. As slavery proliferated, the fighters acquired western firearms and achieved a legendary reputation for their militaristic prowess. This status continued until the dawn of the 20th Century, when they faced off against France’s Third Republic in the Franco-Dahomean War. They were eventually overcome by the deployment of the French Foreign Legion and the introduction of a new weapon– the machine gun. Afterwards, Legionnaires gave testimonials about the fierceness of their female opponents.
Another notable tradition involves the lineage of Nubian warrior queens in the ancient empire of Kush in what is now northern Sudan. These monarchs held the title of Kandake, or “Candace” (from which is derived the present day feminine name), and successfully faced down the Roman Empire during the latter’s attempt to expand its dominion onto the African continent, after it appropriated Egypt during the time of Cleopatra (30 BC).
Wall relief sculptures and frescos from this period depict massive, bejeweled women brandishing weapons to dispatch unwanted intruders. Archaeologists and scholars have only recently begun to unravel the history behind these sovereigns of antiquity, but evidence suggests that the famous Queen of Sheba may have been a Candace. Another ruler, Candace the Queen of Ethiopia and a renowned military tactician and field commander, is referenced in the book of Acts (8:27).
In the New World, Jamaica includes among its national heroes the “Obeah woman” (specializing in folk magic and sorcery) of Ashanti descent, one Nanny of the Maroons, renowned for her expertise in guerrilla warfare against Britain in the 1700s. Nanny used her organizational skills to lead the resistance in the Blue Mountains and to free slaves. In doing so, she transitioned from historical figure to character of folklore and legend, revered as “Granny Nanny,” a mythic Voodoo Priestess. Today, her portrait adorns that country’s $500 bill.
African women also exercised their military prowess throughout the 1800s and into the early 20th Century in opposition to European slave traders. The Herero tribes’ women of present-day Namibia were documented fighting German soldiers as late as 1919 in the 20th Century’s first genocide. The Herero lost some 65,000 people to the German Empire in a prelude to the World War II Holocaust.
Revolutionary war, as the Algerian people is waging it, is a total war in which the woman does not merely knit for or mourn the soldier. The Algerian woman is at the heart of combat. Arrested, tortured, raped and shot down she testifies to the violence of the occupier and to his inhumanity. -Frantz Fanon
While the integration of female troops into the military services of the industrialized West has stirred up no end of controversy within the media and civilian populace, it certainly has not inhibited recruitment among America’s opposing forces. The Russians enforced no gender restrictions within its sniper corps (sharpshooters trained to eliminate targets from long distances with high-precision rifles) during World War II. Lyudmila Pavlichenko and Nina Lobkovskaya were among them, ending the war with 309 and 308 German kills respectively.
Algerian women played a pivotal role in that country’s struggle for independence from the French during the 1950s. Law student Zohra Drif distinguished herself by planting bombs in the Casbah, the Arab section of Algiers for the National Liberation Front while attending that city’s university. Later a prominent lawyer and member of the nation’s Senate, she recently has been sought out as a news commentator by agencies seeking to draw parallels between the conflict of her youth and the contemporary American experience in Iraq.
Ethnically, a North African of Arab descent, Drif used her blond tresses and European features to evade French forces during the execution of her duties; a fact which brings up the stereotype of female coercion as a weapon. Media images have enhanced the real life manifestation of the femme fatale like Marta Hari of World War I fame, popularized in cinema and popular culture.
These individuals from recent history negate arguments against inclusion of women in the military for their own protection. One argument in favor of conscription of female soldiers is the fact that their “otherness” allows them to perform tasks that would be difficult (if not impossible) for their male counterparts to perform. This includes espionage work and conducting weapons searches on their opposing female counterparts.
Given it’s stance on coed educational opportunities, stanchions on immodest dress, and other gender-specific restrictions, Islam to most westerners would not be considered a platform for feminist empowerment, which makes the growing trend utilizing female suicide bombers all the more curious. This may be attributed once again to expediency and the tactical advantages their femininity affords. The burqa, the loose covering donned to hide a woman’s body, is quite useful in concealing bombs and other contraband while out in public doing the will of Allah.
Victims to victimizers
Much of the press coverage from Africa focuses on the human rights transgressions occurring in places like Sudan, including the systemic rape and mutilation of women in the Dafur region by mounted Arab tribesmen of irregular militia called the Janjaweed (roughly translated as ‘Devils on Horseback’). Given the instability that is a norm for many areas on the continent in the post-colonial era, episodes of sexual victimization and outright murder have been replicated throughout the 50 odd states it comprises. Women’s roles in these conflicts have traditionally been that of camp followers or auxiliary support, if not outright victims, but the realities of combat has begun to blur these distinctions as females take up arms to replace male casualties in places like Somalia and Uganda. Originally conscribed as gender-specific labor, many of these newly promoted combatants have discovered a sense of control and power along with their newly acquired weapons, in much the same way that arms bearing has been a badge of masculinity for generations.
This elevation of status has come full circle in a grotesque way, as female soldiers and political leaders have committed the same sort of atrocities perpetrated by men throughout the annals of warfare. Female members of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have been noted for tying the testicles of their captures to motorbikes, then roaring off to leave the hapless victims bleeding to death. Former Rwandan Minister for Women’s Affairs Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, AKA the ‘Mother of Atrocities’ is now on trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in the Hague, Netherlands for ordering the rape of Tutsi women prior to killing them in the Rwandan genocide that claimed nearly 800,000 lives.
Zimbabwe Minister of Women’s Affairs Joice Nhongo got her start as a guerilla fighter in the struggle for liberation from the White dominated government, when it was called Rhodesia. Her prowess in battle earned her the nom-de-guerre Teurai Ropa (bloodspiller) or Mrs. Spill-blood Nhongo and jump started her political career. Currently one of two vice presidents, she has been mentioned as a potential successor to infamous despot President Robert Mugabe.
Closer to home
When the subject of this article was initially discussed, an accomplished professional woman posed the question of whether women actually should or wanted to participate in combat. Arguments against it range from the physiological differences between the sexes to the notion that women are by nature less aggressive and might not “have the stomach” for the realities of combat. Here again, historical precedent belies this view, as numerous accounts among various native American Indian bands document women serving as auxiliary troops and taking an active role in torturing prisoners.
The computer science pioneer and United States Naval officer Rear Admiral Grace Hopper once remarked that the America public would never tolerate the sight of its daughters being shipped home in body bags. Indeed, the American military has been as polarized as any other armed service; its personnel make-up reflecting social changes and transitions within civilian society. As the entire country mobilized to meet the demands of a global conflict in World War II, the female population took up the slack within the manufacturing industry and conjured up the image of Rosie the Riveter, while women in uniform freed up their male counterparts for combat by working in support roles such as the medical field and ferrying new airplanes from factories. Armed strife, damaging to civilization over all, served as a liberating agent by giving these new workers a taste of independence and a launching pad for the social progress during the remaining century.
Women pioneers in an organization devoted to violence have been challenged by periodic defiance to their authority by subordinates, and having to “choose their battles” by ignoring snide comments while meeting other confrontations head on.
Although the armed forces are widely considered a bastion of masculine aggression, some feminists might consider assuming the privations of war and the additional hazard of actual combat to be a necessary hurdle in their own quest for equal footing with men. Unfortunately, this also sometimes means displaying the same bad behavior. In sharp contrast to the recently breached boundaries of gender defined role playing, one particular chapter from the coverage of Iraqi Freedom sounded a distinctly sour note.
The scandal involving tortured Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison (along with similar accusations at Cuba’s Guantanamo Detention Camp) was magnified by images of Specialist Lynndie England and other females subjecting naked Iraqi detainees to humiliation and abuse. Other reports had female interrogators agitating Muslim captives by invading their personal space while partially clothed, or donning sexy lingerie to perform “lap dances” while straddling their detainees, and fondling their genitalia to make them disclose military secrets. The stories behind these female transgressors received much more attention than the behaviors of their male counterparts, perhaps because like their terrorist contemporaries, the activities of women, positive or negative make for more compelling reading than men. Perhaps tellingly, the senior officer disciplined in this scandal, Janice Karpinski suffered the disgrace of demotion from general to colonel; an action she claimed was executed to shield her superiors from the scandal.
Abu Ghraib stands as a dubious milestone in the progression of “Militarized Femininity.” In it, we have a female commandant of an abusive prison, where three of the seven convicted of war crimes, were Caucasian female soldiers accused of sexually tormenting Brown Islamic prisoners.
U.S. Army Major General Anthony Cucolo recently generated controversy when he threatened female troops (along with their sexual partners) under his command with court martial’s if they became pregnant while deployed in a forward (combat) area. The rationale being that their necessary removal from the area would weaken personnel strength. Other sources have suggested birth control be mandatory (female troops in that theatre of war have reported the voluntary use of Depo-Provera, a contraceptive). The general has since backed off, in the wake of public out cry. In this episode, once again emerges the dilemma of blurring gender and the specification of male/female duties. Presently, women are excluded from combat specific classifications, although they regularly assume support roles, which account for more than half the casualty rates in most large-scale conflicts.
Proponents of equal rights argue that exclusion from traditional male occupations, however dangerous and unpleasant the jobs, inhibits career progression and provides cannon fodder for those intent on female subjugation, while evolutionary scientists continue the claim that men are “hot-wired” to cooperate in a group setting, especially when fronted by an outside threat or other form of competition, a contention newly repeated in a 2007 article for the “Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences” journal by Mark Van Vugt.
Equality in the civilian sector seems to be a done deal, however similar progress in the armed forces continues to be accomplished with a qualifier added.
The back story about the Tet Offensive
By Gregg Reese
OW Staff Writer
“On behalf of the soldiers and civilians of the Military Intelligence Corps, I am pleased to inform you that you have been selected for induction into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame. This distinct honor recognizes your outstanding contributions to our Corps and the United States Army.” –from the formal invitation to the MI (Military Intelligence) Hall of Fame.
Arguments against the female participation in the military have ranged from the pragmatic to the absurd as factions debate everything from the availability of flak jackets tailored to fit buxom women, to whether jet cockpits can accommodate the wider hips of female pilots. Female draftees into the Swedish Army have complained of poorly designed government issued brassieres that come apart during field exercises and catch fire easily, causing injuries by melting onto the recruit’s skin (see “‘Flammable’ bras hold back Swedish female conscripts,” from the Sept. 22, 2009 issue of “The Local: Sweden’s news in English”).
Traditionally women have been entrusted with the management of the wounded in keeping with the nurturing associated with their gender. Men charged with chronicling major events, and glamorizing the execution of strategic gamesmanship reserve historical immortality to the male military and political figures that dominate history. Incidents of women–especially Black women–who successfully step outside their prescribed roles, therefore, are noteworthy, as in this case involving a little known episode of the Vietnam War.
Doris Allen enlisted in the army on the eve of the Korean Conflict in 1950. The Tuskegee grad and former school teacher looked forward to a change of pace and a chance to travel on Uncle Sam’s dime, choosing to work her way up the ranks instead of opting for a commission like her sister Jewel. Despite the prevailing racial attitudes of the times, she persevered and took the opportunities afforded her. She enjoyed her duties as an editor and journalist for the armed forces in Japan, as well as assignments organizing entertainment and serving as a public information officer. Even after availing herself of all the correspondence courses and avenues for advancement offered by the military, Allen felt stymied in her efforts for a promotion and was elated when she was chosen for foreign language training and acceptance into the prisoner of war (POW) interrogation school and eventual promotion to Specialist Seventh Class (Sp-7).
In short order she volunteered for duty in Vietnam as an intelligence analyst and found herself in the sweltering confines of Saigon and the logistics facilities in Long Binh, then the largest Army base in the world, home to some 50,000 troops. Periodically Allen traveled outside the compound and recalls the respect the native people showed her despite the presence of “cowboys”–Vietnamese thugs on motorbikes ready to snatch bags and other valuables from unsuspecting Americans. Spec. 7 Allen safeguarded her briefcase with the .45 pistol she was issued. However even in a war zone, episodes popped up to remind Allen of her status as a Black woman and the turmoil simmering elsewhere within American society.
Among her responsibilities as an E-7 (enlisted rank, seventh grade with the highest being E-9) was supervision of processing POWs at the nearby Long Binh Jail (coined the “LBJ” as a snide reference to President Lyndon Baines Johnson). This was an eight-acre compound which housed captured Vietnamese, and was a stockade for the U.S.’s own malcontents and criminals, whose population at times was 90% Black (indicative of the racism flourishing at the time). In August of 1968, racial tensions boiled over into a landmark riot resulting in one death and 59 injured, driving home the fact that, in Allen’s words, “racism was not dead.”
In late 1967, during the course of her duties Allen noticed a pattern in which enemy caches of 122mm rockets had been discovered at specific intervals around the Long Binh perimeter. This and other indicators led her to suspect that a major offensive was forth coming, and she summarized her thoughts in a report titled “50,000 Chinese” which was passed on to a succession of sergeants, captains, majors, and colonels. It received a mixed reception from her superiors at division level or higher, who didn’t quite know what to make of it. Very soon her intuition would be confirmed as Tet, marking the arrival of spring and the most popular holiday in the Vietnamese culture approached.
On January 30, 1968, some 80,000 plus North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops along with guerilla elements of the Viet Cong (VC) launched a coordinated attack on more than 100 targets throughout South Vietnam. This action, which came to be known as the Tet Offensive, captivated the global media and seriously eroded American morale. It also highlighted the failure of the American high command to recognize the changing enemy strategy. Virtually all key military and political figures were surprised by the intensity, coordination and timing of the attack, especially during that nation’s most important celebration.
Using the same tactics which undermined the French in the landmark 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu, Vo Nguyen Giap, the most prominent Vietnamese military commander besides Ho Chi Minh, began a January 21 artillery assault on the Marine base at Khe Sanh. This was possibly done to draw American attention away from the real focus of the offensive–major cities such as Saigon, where the American Embassy was nearly captured, and Hu?, which was overrun and occupied by the Communists who massacred more than 2,000 including German missionaries, before the Marines recaptured it on March 3. These events soured the American public, which was accustomed to dispatches describing the enemy as demoralized and on the verge of collapse. This was followed up by General William Westmoreland’s request for an additional 200,000 troops from a military spread thin by commitments in Europe and other crisis areas in the Cold War.
Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, the head of the armed forces who waged war using the tenets of “policy analysis” that dominates business theory and public policy today, tendered his resignation on February 28. That following March 31, President Johnson shocked the nation with the announcement that he would not seek re-election.
Today, the Tet Offensive is seen as the turning point of the Vietnam War, and alternately seen as a military victory for the U.S. and its allies. It is also viewed as a political triumph for their communist foes because they permanently undermined the American psyche and willingness to fight. The VC were essentially crushed, and would not be a tangible factor for the remainder of the conflict, but the NVA, in spite of suffering some 32,000 deaths in a matter of eight months (compared to 1,100 for the U.S.), secured entry into the Paris Peace Talks that eventually stopped the bloodshed and sent American troops home. Ho, Giap and their comrades proved that they could sustain astronomical casualties, while demonstrating to the Americans that defeating them would require a sacrifice in lives and resources that the folks back home would not accept.
Subsequent military histories including the Naval Historical Center have acknowledged that flawed intelligence collection along with shoddy interpretation of this data including Allen’s report are largely responsible for the American military not being fully prepared. The predictions made by Allen in her report surely would have assisted in better preparation for the attack, and might possibly have changed the course of the war even though the American’s gained a tactical victory. In retrospect, Allen thinks her concerns may have been glossed over because of her race and/or gender. Although her efforts were not always taken seriously, she received validation in the form of a Bronze Star and a promotion to Warrant Officer (distinguished from regular commissioned officers in that they are specialists who are experts in a given field) upon her return to the states. During the remainder of her military career she continued her work in interrogation, and served as a counterintelligence agent in the US and Germany. After her retirement she earned a doctorate and pursued a second career as a psychologist in Oakland.
Allen notes similarities between our present conflict in Afghanistan and her experiences decades ago in Indochina. Understandably proud of President Barack Obama, she told Our Weekly that she “loves him to death,” but says that he inherited a war that is not being fought correctly. In addition to the issues of not being allowed to fight the way they were trained (reminiscent of Vietnam), today’s service members suffer the additional burden of unresolved racial challenges and problems stemming from biases involving gender and sexual orientation.
In June 2009, Allen received a final tribute to her military accomplishments with an induction into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, some 20 years after she was originally nominated. She is the second African American woman to be so honored, following in the footsteps of Mary Elizabeth Bowser, who served as a Union spy while a servant in the home of Jefferson Davis, president of the confederacy during the Civil War–another forgotten chapter in the “Herstory” of African American women in America.