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Women in War : by Shelly Saywell (Viking: $17.95; 320 pp.)

March 09, 1986| Judith Hicks Stiehm | Stiehm is vice provost and professor of political science at USC. and

Donald Regan, the U.S. Congress and others hold the quaint notion that women can be protected, exempted, even barred from war's slaughter. Americans are probably particularly susceptible to this idea because (setting aside nuclear holocaust) we tend to think of wars as something fought either by proxy or by men who travel to some distant location by plane or ship. But in that distant location, wars are not fought on playing fields--they are fought in cities, on farms, through parks; they are fought where ordinary people are trying to conduct their daily lives. Women are inevitably in every war--and the reader of Shelly Saywell's "Women in War" will not in the future be able to forget or repress that elemental fact.

Saywell presents the war stories of about 22 women who participated in World War II, in the fight for Israel's independence, in the Indochina and Vietnam conflicts, the Falklands War and El Salvador's continuing struggle. These are ordinary women. Some suffered grievously, some witnessed carnage, some committed acts of great bravery and sacrifice. Their war stories differ from those of men, though. They describe the origin of their acts as necessity; they do not claim to have participated in the making of history (a belief seductive to policy-makers), nor do they believe that they were proving their gender (a claim to which young men are susceptible). They describe themselves as simply doing what had to be done. They did not seek honor or reward, and they received little of either.

The British stories are told by a millionaire's daughter who served as a pilot and a chauffeur's daughter who served as an "ack-ack girl." Both volunteered, but thousands of British women were drafted in World War II. Both women served abroad and with loaded weapons, but they were not allowed to actually fire a weapon. Apparently dying for one's country was OK for women, but killing was not.

The French women narrators fought in an occupied country. One was trained abroad and parachuted into France to teach resistance fighters the art of explosives and sabotage. The other worked in the underground until she was arrested, tortured and interned in Ravensbruck. There, she says, among the inmates, she found "the worst in human nature."

Italian partisans faced the responsibility for reprisals against civilians when they mounted a successful attack. One of Saywell's storytellers was sustained by a political position, but the other claimed "you just don't think about anything but surviving and covering for your friends." Polish resisters also fought an occupying army. Following the 67-day Warsaw uprising, which brought final devastation to that capital, Saywell's narrators were imprisoned in Bergen Belsen, rescued by the Allies, immigrated to Canada, and for a long time suffered physical and psychological wounds from their experiences.

The participants in the Soviet Union's "Great Patriotic War" served as regular military personnel, sometimes in segregated and sometimes in integrated units. They served as nurses, as snipers, as bomber pilots and Marines. One-tenth of Russia's population was killed in a war which "spared no one." Invasion created a necessity that made women front-line soldiers--soldiers who "remembered death not glory." But as one said, "I wanted to live a life I would not be ashamed of if I survived." Today, though, the Soviet Union's conscripted army has few women. (In contrast, the U.S. volunteer military is about 10% women.)

It is too bad that the author did not interview German and Japanese women to round out the World War II perspectives. One wonders, too, if the women of those countries perceived that their armies had been aggressors, and if they participated in war as women did in the other countries.

The Israeli story reinforces a theme found in the other accounts--men do not like to have women fight. Therefore, military success and institutionalization correlate with women's disarmament and segregation. (Except in the United States in the last decade.) Moreover, women do not usually resist either their disarmament or segregation. Most women who fought were volunteers, but apparently they did not relish war--they did not find that it had the positive values attributed to it by both William James and J. Glenn Gray, author of "The Warrior." Thus, they were willing to relinquish their roles as warriors when asked.

The more contemporary pieces describe nursing in Vietnam, watching the bravado of a quick Falkland victory and a civil war with U.S. involvement on the side of the status quo.

Many of the stories are told by women who participated when mere girls. The El Salvador stories are unusual because they are by women--women who are mothers of young children. Still, it is clear that official armies are mostly made up of men--young men, often boys. This leads one to wonder if the most insidious aspect of patriarchy might not be what old men exact of young men rather than what men do to women.

This leads to a final question. Why has women's participation in war so regularly been overlooked? Why does its existence go unrecorded? Why is Saywell's book so singular? Could it be because the men could not get young men to fight if they (the old men) were to abandon the psychologically potent claim that to be a soldier is to be a man?

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