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POW video reopens gender debate

The Iraqi video of captured American troops was also a reminder of the new face of war — one in which women are playing an ever expanding role in the front lines.'s Kari Huus reports.
Shoshawna Johnson, American prisoner of war POW in Iraq, shown on al-Jazeera. Johnson is part of the Army's 507th Maintenance Company.
Shoshawna Johnson, American prisoner of war POW in Iraq, shown on al-Jazeera. Johnson is part of the Army's 507th Maintenance Company.
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The specter of U.S. prisoners of war on Iraqi television this weekend was a reminder to Americans of the old-fashioned type of war — one in which both sides capture prisoners, and both sides suffer losses. But it was also a reminder of the new face of war — one in which women are playing an ever expanding role closer to the front lines, adding to the debate surrounding their role in the military.

In footage broadcast by Iraqi television on Sunday, U.S. Army Spc. Shoshawna Johnson was shown in captivity alongside three men in video footage that also showed several bodies, apparently Americans shot in the head. The 30-year-old single mother sat on a sofa, her hands twisting in her lap. Her eyes darted between the camera lens and someone off camera to her right. She was missing her boots and her ankle was bandaged.

Johnson was the first American servicewoman to be captured in this conflict. She is also the first to be captured since 1994, when a new law opened up thousands of previously prohibited American military positions to women.

An evolving role
The current conflict marks the first time a woman will fly an Apache Longbow helicopter into combat. Women may fly B-2 bomber missions. They are stationed closer to the front lines than in the 1991 Gulf War.

The result, say those who both support and oppose the expanded role for women in the military, is that women are now much more likely to be among those captured, killed or injured.

The steady expansion of women joining U.S. military service began with the end of the military draft in the United States — a trend repeated around the world — that prompted a broader search for volunteers. And, as a growing number of military positions rely more on technology and precision than brawn, women have gradually filled more of them.

Overall, about 15 percent of all U.S. military personnel on active duty are women — about 200,000 — up from less than 2 percent when the Vietnam War-era draft ended.

An active debate
But the 1994 law marked sufficient changes in the role women play in the military to reinvigorate the overall debate over their role in the military in general and their exposure to combat in particular.

Under the legislation, ushered in by then Defense Secretary Les Aspin, “direct combat roles” remain off-limits to women. In practice, that means they cannot hold positions in the Army’s infantry, armor, Ranger and field artillery battalions.

In the Marine Corps, the infantry regiment and its associated elements remain closed — about two-thirds of the positions. Nor can women join Army Special Forces.

But the law replaced a far more sweeping provision called the Risk Rule, which went into effect in 1988. The aim of that rule — to limit women’s exposure to hostile fire or capture — put virtually all combat and many non-combat positions out of reach.

“It is no longer a question of danger, but whether women have what it takes to fight,” says retired navy Capt. Lory Manning, director of the Women in the Military project at the Women’s Research and Education Institute.

For one, the 1994 law opened up new occupations to women, including some of the military’s most elite jobs. Women are now trained for combat aircraft missions — flying bombers, fighters and helicopters, a step beyond their role in the 1991 Gulf War, when women pilots were confined to non-combat missions, such as flying surveillance and search and rescue.

In terms of numbers of new positions for women, the biggest change occurred in the Navy, which opened up service on combat ships, with the exception of submarines. During the first war with Iraq, the Navy allowed women to serve on supply, hospital, ammunition and oiler ships. In this conflict they are also serving on naval combat ships, aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers.

The other impact of the 1994 law change was open up many more units to women, providing additional career opportunities while also increasingly their exposure to combat circumstances.

The circumstances surrounding the capture of Johnson and her colleagues from the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company remain unclear. Her family told NBC they believed she was a cook, far from the line of fire. They were shocked when she appeared among the prisoners of war.

Opponents speak out
Those who oppose women on the front lines reacted immediately, saying that Johnson would not have been sent into this position and would not have been a POW before the law changed in 1994.

“When I heard the disturbing news, I feared right away that at least one of those soldiers would be a woman serving her country in uniform,” said Elaine Donnelly, the president of The Center for Military Readiness, which argues against the 1994 law. “Advocates of women in combat often talk about ‘sharing the risk’ of war, but the truth is that women face unequal and greater risks.” The organization also argues that women have vulnerabilities that may be exploited by the enemy, one of several reasons that their presence on the front lines may undermine military effectiveness.

Another commentator, Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis told Fox News: “We clearly need to reconsider the decision made in the early 1990s for the good of the country and the good of women.”

Their fears, that women cannot withstand the rigors of captivity — and particularly that they might suffer sexual abuse, are dismissed by advocates of women in the military.

They point out that during World War II, 88 American servicewomen were taken prisoner of war by the Japanese when they invaded the Philippines, and that these women showed no less ability to hold up under brutality and desperate conditions.

As for sexual abuse, they argue that men can be sexually and otherwise abused and humiliated as easily as women.

“There are people who would like to go back to the old ways, and they have latched on” to this incident, says Manning. “I hate to see something horrible like this used for an ideological purpose.”

In Operation Desert Storm, of the 250,000 U.S. troops deployed, 37,000 were women. At the end of six weeks of fighting, 16 U.S. servicewomen had been killed, and 21 wounded, many killed by “indirect causes” including Scud attacks, helicopter crashes and land mines. Two were captured and held as prisoners of war and later released.