When women die in battle


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 http://userpages.aug.com/captbarb/lives.html, "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)CompuServe.com.)


  1. Sam Osborne

    On Wednesday of this past week Vice President Dick Cheney at a Fort Hood pep rally told thousands of troops “Pursue the enemy until there’s no place left to hide. Stay in the fight until the fight is won.” Earlier this year, President George W. Bush told veterans at an annual convention of the American Legion: “The war we fight today is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century.”

    So why hasn’t Commander-in-Chief Bush committed the nation fully to this struggle?

    Why hasn’t he instituted the draft to place an overwhelming force of millions of troops into the fight, why no rationing and redirection of resources that places our enemies on notice and the nation on a war footing?

    Or, is this just some propaganda intended to spin the next election? If George W. Bush really means what he says, one would think that he would have issued a call for a total mobilization for victory.

    War’s hell and our troops must “stay in the fight,” but could you please pass another cappuccino.

  2. Doubtom

    Any revulsion at women dying in war is more a cultural reaction than anything else. Most cultures protect women and children as opposed to sending them or allowing them to participate in the insanity that is war.

    War itself is what must abolished, not who us eligible to die. And if wars cannot be abolished then those who start them should be made to lead the combat in the field. If Bush or Cheney had to lead troops in the field instead of from an easy chair, this war would have never begun. We are led by cowards!

  3. Jackson

    Agressive War should be abolished, because it’s nothing more than a racket where unfortunate dupes are preyed upon by evil leaders. They’re killed or maimed for no reason other than the leader’s evil ends. This very sensible step will never be taken however, as long as unfortunate dupes, far outnumber intelligent individuals in the world.

  4. Margherite

    The NYT fails to mention the truly unacceptable statistic — the number of military women who return home with physical and emotional wounds from sexual and aggravated assaults inflicted on them by male members of their own combat units. SHAME!

  5. Donna Erickson

    Americans as long as they can keep their creature comforts by sending poor kids to slaughter(either male or female)will remain brain dead to the body count.
    This is a travsity when we should be protecting our young people. And our kids should be raising up to protest this dammed war.
    Wait until the “Draft” is reinstated and it will be, then we will see some action.

  6. Fred P

    @Jackson – “Agressive War should be abolished”

    It has been abolished, by treaty (see United Nations Charter Chapter I for an example), even in the U.S.A.

    Even if the U.S. had never signed the U.N. charter, it is a jus cogens portion of international law (see see The Nuremberg Principles, V1a and VII; Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, article 53), so it would still apply according to international law.

  7. Ann N P.

    In the not to distant past it seems women requested equality. Be careful what you ask for , you might get it. They now have it , or so they think.

  8. C. D. Falin

    I feel that when anyone loses their life in this war, it is a loss…being a female does not make the loss greater. If a female elects to enlist, that’s her decision, and should not be treated any differently. And as far as sexual abuse goes…this is the real world, it happens in and out of service. I have a problem with women joining and leaving their children behind….what kind of mother is that? Don’t tell me that she’s doing her patriot duty, once she has that child, her first and only duty should be to raise that child…and not by letters sent from across the world.

  9. If a person joins the military it is their duty to take up arms in defense of their county and its allies. A soldier is a soldier no matter what the sex and if you are in the military you are a soldier! Don’t send my sons to war if you are unwilling to send your daughters.

  10. Bobbi Sanchez

    Why is more unacceptable for women to die in war than men? I see war as immoral and no sex has a monopoly on its terror and injury. A sodier is a soldier that is female, not a female. Keep the priority in the right place.You don’t want women to go to war? Then Stop sending the men!