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America at War

Women's New Roles in War

Desiree Cooper

Angela Kim

Shirley Shin

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Marine In Training
(Scott Olson / Getty Images)
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Helen Benedict: This is not a conventional war. The frontlines are the roads. The frontlines are everywhere because mortars and bombs can reach anyone.

Desiree Cooper: You've been talking to women who recently served in the Iraq war. I was wondering, aside from being shot at, what are the other dangers they are worried about.

Just as women are exposed to the same sort of dangers as men and undergoing all the same traumas that men have, being shot at and seeing the wounded and the dead and often very grotesque sights, about a third of the women in Iraq are being sexually assaulted or raped by men on their own side, and anywhere between 90 to 100 percent of them are being daily, relentlessly, sexually harassed.

Well, you've been interviewing some of these female soldiers, and how has the threat of rape or the ever present sexual harassment affected their daily lives as soldiers?

It does depend on the unit they serve in. Some are much better than others. The military is also a traditionally macho, male organization. The kind of experience that I've heard described by the soldiers that I've been interviewing is really from the minute they're in training: all day, men are ogling them up and down, constantly sexual teasing, and a lot of men will say, "Oh, I'm only teasing."

But because it goes on and on and on, and because the women are so outnumbered, the message culminates to: you are an outsider, you are not one of us. Now the way women cope with it when they're over there is they do something a lot of them call fronting, which is that they put on a mask of being tough, twice as tough as the men. One woman said to me, "I've got to be twice as bad as the boys to prove myself."

Do you think our perception of war has changed because of the involvement of women in the Iraq war?

I don't think that most civilians in this country understand how big a role women have because they're not portrayed equally enough in the media. I've watched endless documentaries and TV shows and it's amazing how rarely women show up or are featured, except in the same subject that we've been talking about. And then it's skewed to always talk about women soldiers in terms of being victims of sexual assault.

We should hear more about the work they do and how they're missing their families and being missed by their families in the same sorts of stories we hear about men. But I think eventually it will make a difference because I am finding that telling the story of war through the eyes of women soldiers, it's a very different way of looking at war than it has been traditionally done in male memoirs and writings about war through the eyes of male soldiers. Going to war without the brotherhood, without the romance and glamour of camaraderie, makes war a very different thing.

More stories from our America at War series


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