Combat Narratives Show Loss of Social Supports Leads Many Women Into Warfare Jobs

A U.S. Army specialist salutes at Forward Operating Base Marez, in Mosul, Iraq, on September 5, 2009. (Photo: The US Army)A US Army specialist salutes at Forward Operating Base Marez, in Mosul, Iraq, on September 5, 2009. (Photo: The US Army)

In 2016, the policy of banning US military women from combat was lifted. Three years earlier, on January 24, 2013, then-US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had first announced this policy shift with the unanimous consent of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and with rare bipartisan Congressional support. Under Panetta’s plan, each branch of the military would assess what would be entailed in implementing these changes and in specifying the reasons for exceptions, even as 237,000 new positions would open to women. On the eve of full implementation, Panetta’s successor, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, expanded the policy’s reach, opening all combat roles to women without exception.

Since the end of US military conscription in 1972 and the advent of an all-volunteer army, military recruitment in the US depends on neoliberal cuts to the caring arm of the state. Women returning from war and publishing their stories often say they joined the military because of lack of educational opportunities, child care, health care, job supports and other basic needs that should be and might have once been provided by state redistributive policies. Within a liberal culture where the state is supposed to care for and protect rights and freedoms, new female militarized figures are products of a global crisis in care — a marketing of care, a militarization of care and an administering of care — as the sphere of violence is spreading and intensifying, causing the liberal contract theorized first by Hobbes to unravel. The liberal social contract was supposed to be a trade-off between states and citizens, where citizens gave up certain freedoms in exchange for security.

This current global crisis is a historical break from the Enlightenment’s liberal social contract, a break that is deliberated, planned, promoted, orchestrated and delivered by its beneficiaries, not a natural or inevitable rupture. As the civil arm of the state backs off in the obligations it has historically held toward its citizens — i.e., education, health care, labor protections, environmental protections, infrastructure — and fulfills its security promise increasingly through outright acts of aggression, women have moved from welfare into warfare. The fact that they turn to the military for receiving provisions once offered by welfare programs goes along with a symbolic transition where the military takes up care functions and redefines them inside their combat missions. Women will most likely have proportionally increased military participation not because of a liberal largesse that has suddenly understood the error of its exclusionary ways but rather because women lose disproportionally in cuts to social supports.

Mainstream media coverage of Panetta’s plan suggests that involving women in combat is a cultural innovation in military organization, a liberal victory, and that such a reorganization demands not only logistical modifications, changes in accommodations and a banning of sexist language in drills but also, more importantly, a psychological and cultural shift. Since 1948, women have been banned by the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act from serving on Navy shipboard or in any aircraft on a combat mission. The restriction on women in combat had meant that women were not allowed to take jobs classified as artillery specialist, infantry, special operations or tank crew. The work of women has traditionally defined the area outside the war, a visual marker for identifying civil society and cultures of care and protection. However, according to the US Army’s statistics, women have been serving since 1775, were officially inducted in 1901, and currently make up 15.7 percent of those in active service. Though in the early 1960s, women constituted less than the 2 percent legal maximum in military service, in 1967 the quota was removed in Public Law 90-130, leading to a gradual increase.

The changing formation of the front line in the wars of the past two decades has meant that women’s service and auxiliary roles can no longer be claimed as outside of combat. For example, when women medics are called upon to assist in the aftermath of IED (improvised explosive devices) explosions during convoy transports, women engaged in military work find themselves under barrage and in the direct line, often without proper training or equipment.

What, then, accounts for the distinction between, on the one hand, a policy debate where it is assumed to have been impossible to imagine women in combat and, on the other, a popular culture in which women combatants appear in abundance? Popular film and TV promote an uncanny number of militarized women, from the Cylons of “Battlestar Galactica” to CIA-operative Carrie Mathison in “Homeland” sniffing out terrorists with her global surveillance systems and bipolar security instincts. Even so, Panetta’s lifting of the ban evoked shock, fear and backlash from those who read doomsday in such a radical new world: “Military news sites like Army Times and Marine Corps Times lit up with comments, some ranging from laughably sexist to reprehensible,” The New York Times mentions in its editorial on Panetta’s decision. “‘They shouldn’t be bused in from the field every 3 days for a shower while the guys stay out for 45 days,’ said one commenter. ‘The castration of the U.S. Army continues,’ said another. ‘God help us all.'”

Literature began to consider the symbolic fallout of women in modern armed conflicts as early as the 1905 performance at the Royal Court Theater of George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara,” and then again with the 1924 opening of “Saint Joan” in New York.

More recently, often in defense or rejection of positions in the public discussion about women in combat in the context of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been a slew of literary contributions. Such literature shows that the inclusion of women in combat has meant a change in a liberal culture of care: In a liberal society, the civil sector is meant to be the space where human need is tended to for the sake of living, that is, a zone — often identified through the work of women — where the human body is recognized as vulnerable and so requiring care and protection; in opposition, war is imagined through the continuity of health, strength and vitality in the service of violence, the physical body resisting the onslaught of time or the infliction of injury for the sake of action. The war itself, war novels tell us, finds limits in limits to the forward vitality of the male body in action. In the 21st century, advances in technology have allowed the organic human body to seem to transcend such wearing of time and susceptibility to injury expected on the battlefield.

Today, women combatants are coming back from war and writing about their experience in novels, confessions, memoirs, ethnographies, autobiographies, blogs, plays and poems.

Sam Sacks argues contrarily in Harper’s that contemporary war fiction “shows how traditional the veteran’s narrative remains,” adding that “there are more than 200,000 women on active duty in the military, but the female experience of warfare has been barely broached.” This is simply not true.

The current “surge” of literary interest in women’s combat indicates that taking a position with regard to women in combat lends itself to literary form. Today’s war novels can be compared to historical war novels to show the gradual change in our ideologies of care, as women who once served as nurses now find themselves increasingly on the front line. Such women’s combat narratives often make the military itself what the civil sector is supposed to be. In the traditional war narrative, the zone of injury and the zone of securities, protections and care were separated by a barrier of violence: the front line.

In many 21st century women’s combat narratives, injury prevails within civilian relationships. In Band of Sisters (2007), for example, a US Navy nurse, Lieutenant Estella Salinas is known as one of “the healers of the guardians of peace.” Salinas’ commitment to helping the troops distinguishes her from the Iraqi mother and father who refuse to accompany their injured child being medevaced to a hospital base. While criticizing the Iraqis for such disaffected parenting, Salinas makes this remark about herself: “How could a woman who prided herself on providing a stable environment for her children agree to go to war?” Perhaps hypocritically, Salinas considers her own departure from her children, in contrast to the Iraqis’ (which was evidence of bad parenting), as a “job equalizer”: Women should leave their children because men do, so that the family, any “good” family by definition, has a tear at its very center. Not only does Salinas “treat these patients [American service members] as if they were a family member,” painting an image of the family as bound through injury, but also her own family is constituted through sacrifice and abrasion.

Such women’s combat narratives extend beyond the framing devices used in earlier works, where the war is depicted as a series of battle scenes and actions. In contrast, in the lead-up to the war, the would-be woman combatant confronts multiple situations involving absences or failures of care: in the face of the brutal economic blockade caused by unemployment, under-education, deprivation and the like, those in parenting roles fail to protect and provide, and, in parallel, the state via the military fails to come through on its promises to substitute in for the parents by providing the missing care. Today’s women’s combat narrative foregrounds the narrative of the broken democratic, care-giving promise of the welfare state.

The canonical image of women in war stems from the dutiful Penelope in The Odyssey faithfully awaiting her husband’s return. If the home in liberal society is meant to be a refuge from the hostilities of public interaction and exchange, the woman combatant shows that this space of care and this world of hostility reside in the same body. They do not, as in All Quiet on the Western Front, for example, sit at different ends of a train journey, separated by meadows and farmyards and waving children on station platforms. In George Brant’s one-person play Grounded (2013), rather, the pilot is peering into a screen inside the desert hills of Nevada, following a lead terrorist who is driving in an Iraqi desert, and she sees that “A girl runs out of the house, Runs out toward the car, A little girl is running … It’s not his daughter it’s mine.” The temporal and spatial hiatus collapses; the woman’s promise of care and the soldier’s engagement with violence combine so that the narrative is repeatedly pushing against two phases of the social contract. The woman combatant’s narrative promises care and simultaneously breaks that promise. Instead of building toward some resolution or end of conflict, history repeats as moments of care’s failure.

Commenting at the outset on the policy in the armed forces that “women could serve their country but only men should be asked to experience combat,” Helen Thorpe’s Soldier Girls (2014) follows and intertwines the life stories of three women characters through multiple deployments in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Michelle’s father had worked for Swanson Electric, but that had closed down, while her mother was a bookkeeper for General Waste, which also shut its doors. Michelle’s military service evolves out of the loss of steady income due to deindustrialization in the heartland. Before enlisting, Michelle lived with her mother who was poor and periodically unemployed while her father, a truck driver who often landed in jail, lived in a trailer on the opposite side of town. “She wanted to get out of this forgotten place where good jobs evaporated and bad jobs drained the life out of people.” Such breakdowns in parenting and nurturance in home life furnish the military with a ready set of recruits who might look to the military for a substitute. “Big Brother,” announces Emma Sky, for example, in her book about Iraqi reconstruction, The Unraveling (2015), “was watching you, taking care of you.”

The end of the caring functions of the liberal state is one aspect of a neoliberal reorganization of work that many women’s combat narratives help to normalize. The militarization of care assumes an acceptance that expected mechanisms of care are dysfunctional, and the social contract’s promise has been misdirected, even discredited. The traditional public institutions that have been the sites to lodge grievances and demands, protests and rights claims within democratic cultures, now appear as failing institutions needing, instead, to implement aggression, discipline and enforcement in a broken world.

Literature written by, for, or about women in combat shows us this. These works are often heartbreaking because, even while maybe leaving their children in the care of others or sustaining incapacitating life-altering mental and physical injuries, the women often express a compelling desire to be working for the good of their country or serving others or just trying to get by for themselves and their families, without being able to articulate clearly — or at all — the connection between what they are doing in the field and these caring goals. Indeed, the absence of an articulation of such a connection is telling, as such soldiers risk their security and that of their nation in order to boost the financial securities of those who make more insecurity for others. Political rhetoric should find strategies for maintaining a distinction between care and war not dependent on adopting a historically-obsolete, gendered division of labor, while institutions of care should be built and defended that do not depend on the continuation of war. The answer should not be to enlist more women in the military in the interests of equality but rather to stop these wars in the service of life.

Note: this article was adapted from an excerpt from the forthcoming book Gender for the Warfare State: Literature of Women in Combat (Routledge, 2017).