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America's quiet acceptance


September 29, 2006

To date, 65 women soldiers have died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan - a small percentage of the U.S. total of almost 3,000 war dead as of this writing, but a significant number nonetheless.

Why aren't Americans upset about this? Or should they be?

A New York Times article commemorating these women's contributions to the war effort posited that there once was a time when Americans would have found it morally unacceptable to witness women soldiers coming home in body bags.

Has that time come and gone? Or has something else changed?

The truth is, women have been dying in battle - perhaps not all as soldiers, but dying nonetheless - for their country since the Civil War.

Historians of earlier eras simply were not as vigorous in promoting this fact as writers are today. By the same token, women's deaths in battle are hardly an altogether new phenomenon. According to the Web site, "Historians seem reluctant to record or publish the names and numbers of American women who gave their lives in service to their country. Whether from illness, injury, disease, enemy fire, plane crashes, or the unknown, ...."

The site goes on to note that more than 60 women were either killed or wounded "at various battles during the Civil War," including two women in Confederate uniforms found dead on the battlefield at Gettysburg. Several hundred American women died during World War I, on ships crossing the Atlantic, in Paris during air raids and in military accidents on the home front.

In World War II, more than 400 military women lost their lives. The first American woman to die in a combat zone was a nurse from Michigan whose hospital plane went down in 1944 during her 196th rescue mission.

That does not mean things aren't changing for women in Iraq. They are, and these changes are leading to a change in public attitude. First, female troops in Iraq are fighting in what amounts to a guerrilla war. The battlefield ranges from classic combat (two armies meeting in the middle and exchanging fire) to walking down a Baghdad street while an insurgent happens to toss a live hand grenade. Women may still be officially banned by the Pentagon from ground combat positions, but Pentagon policy can't shield them from the receiving end of enemy fire.

The Pentagon also still bars women from co-locating with ground combat troops. But troop shortages cause Pentagon brass to place women in key combat-support positions. As more and more women are placed in combat support, and the lines blur between combat and combat-support units (which work side by side), more and more women find themselves in situations where they must exchange enemy fire with Iraqi insurgents in order to survive.

As these women defend themselves against enemy fire, they, too, end up defending their fellow soldiers. Is that combat or not? Even the experts disagree.

There is at least one more factor at work here forcing Americans to adjust to women war dead as an unavoidable fact of life. As more American women come home in body bags, the public is simultaneously witnessing an increased number of images of women and child casualties in other conflicts around the world. An estimated 75 percent of civilian casualties worldwide are women and children, according to Zainab Salbi. She's an Iraqi and a war survivor herself who went on to found Women for Women International.

Salbi's new book, "The Other Side of War," reveals the untold stories of women who have lived through war.

The point is, if we see pictures of dead women and children regularly coming to us from Darfur, Chechnya and elsewhere, we become more inured to losing our own women.

Any American casualty, whether male or female, is one too many more. But if women are going to sign up for service, and be placed in harm's way, it seems that any official policy that bars them from combat is outdated and needs to change. Once again, the public is ahead of Pentagon brass on this point. And Pentagon brass ought to be listening.


Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.
E-mail bonnieerbe(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service,

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