Female Prisoners of War: Feminism's Triumph?

by Rich Lowry

March 28, 2003

The captured American Army Specialist Shoshana Johnson, by all accounts, had no intention of becoming a feminist icon.

A note of unseemly glee has greeted the tragedy of her falling into the hands of the Iraqis, as if to say, "Look, women can be prisoners of war, too!" The New York Times ran an editorial titled "The Pinking of the Armed Forces," hailing Johnson's capture as a reminder of how the American military has evolved, slowly and sometimes reluctantly, into an organization where the dangerous jobs of war are performed by both sexes.

One can only wait for other leaps ahead in social mores, like seeing American women gassed, pulverized by tank rounds and sniped at in block-to-block urban warfare.

Johnson is the victim of a feminist revolution that swept the military in the mid-1990s. As part of the backlash against the frat-boy excesses of the Tailhook Convention of 1991, critics of the male-dominated military pried open direct-combat positions, in aviation and the Navy, for women.

Ground combat was still taboo—but barely. In 1994, President Clinton's Secretary of Defense Les Aspin relaxed the definition of "direct-ground combat," removing "inherent risk of capture" as one of the considerations. And he axed the Risk Rule that barred women from combat-support units that would encounter some of the same threats as direct-combat units.

"The new policy," crowed a Defense Department press release at the time, "means that women will no longer be excluded from military specialties simply because the jobs are dangerous." Feminists hailed the change for opening tens of thousands of new positions to women.

One of the major potential problems with the 1994 definition was obvious, and identified in a 1998 General Accounting Office report: The "definition of direct combat links these [combat] tasks to a particular location on the battlefield—'well forward.' In making this link, the definition excludes battlefields that may lack a clearly defined forward area."

Precisely like the battlefield in Iraq. Johnson, a single mom, joined the military with no thought of encountering the enemy. She signed up to get cooking experience. Unfortunately, women like her were now to be afforded "an equal opportunity" to get captured on the battlefield.

"Since soldiers must do what they are told," Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness writes, "the young mother was 'cross-trained' for a maintenance unit in support of the infantry." Two women were captured with the 507th Maintenance Company: Johnson, and 19-year-old supply clerk Jessica Lynch, fate unknown.

Johnson's aunt has expressed understandable surprise that she wasn't safe somewhere in Kuwait: "I was really shocked. I thought that she was going to be doing something in the background, you know, the cooking does not take you to where she ended up being."

Male prisoners can be abused, but aren't vulnerable in the way women are. Women get raped, a crime that any civilized society considers particularly horrific.

One of the two female POWs in the first Gulf War was sexually abused immediately upon her capture (she had two broken arms at the time). The other has never publicly talked about what might have happened to her.

There is something odd about the same feminists who, rightly, make campaigning against rape one of their highest priorities applauding the fact that American women—who might, like Johnson, have no idea of what they were signing up for—have been put in danger of terrible abuse in Iraq.

There is a reason that almost all societies in human history—with a few exceptions, like the desperate, and brutal, Red Army in World War II—have avoided putting their women in danger of falling into enemy hands. Because the consequences are too awful to contemplate.

In contemporary America, however, the paradigm of gender equality trumps all. The tide runs so strong that it might well be impossible to reinstate the Risk Rule. Feminists can savor that victory. They shouldn't pretend that they have done Shoshana Johnson any favors.

Rich Lowry is the author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.