Mothers in the Line of Fire
Women in Combat Is a Pro-life Matter of Moral Theology
by Andrew A. Sicree
The state of Arizona renamed a mountain and a highway for her. The US Army awarded her the Purple Heart and promoted her posthumously. But what became of the children of Lori Ann Piestewa?
On March 23, 2003, Army Pfc. Piestewa of the 507th Maintenance Company, out of Fort Bliss, Texas, was traveling in a military convoy that got lost and wandered into an ambush near Nasiriyah, Iraq. Piestewa, injured in the attack and captured, died in captivity shortly thereafter. The first female American soldier to die in the war, she, as a Hopi, was also the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the US military. The drama surrounding the capture and rescue of her fellow soldier, Jessica Lynch, overshadowed Piestewa’s capture and death. Forgotten is the fact that Piestewa left behind a four-year-old son and three-year-old daughter.
One Hundred Women
In the past two decades, a revolution in American military affairs has taken place. With little debate in Congress and little notice by the electorate, the placement of women in combat roles within our armed forces has progressed steadily. Already, women in the Air Force fly combat missions. But for every female pilot, there are hundreds of women who stand watch, disarm bombs, or drive Humvees in Army convoys. Although not classified as “combat” positions by the military, these tasks place women in the line of fire. The moral question of placing women in combat applies to all women who serve in positions that make them legitimate military targets, even if they are not engaged in actual combat.
Between September 11, 2001, and November 2009, more than one hundred women died while serving in the US armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. One female soldier died in the arms of her husband . Staff Sgt. Kimberley Voelz, mortally wounded by the explosion of an improvised explosive device (IED) she was disarming, died as she was held by her husband, who was also a soldier stationed nearby.
One-third of the deaths of female soldiers were attributed to non-hostile causes: accidents or illnesses. Two-thirds were the result of enemy actions. At least twelve of these women soldiers were mothers of one or more children 18 years old or younger.
A few organizations, such as the Center for Military Readiness (CMR), question the wisdom of policies that place women in or near combat areas. The CMR points out that policy changes putting women in harm’s way have been made without Congressional debate or authorization.
But while political debate has been minimal, there has been even less discussion of the morality of allowing or requiring women to fight. I propose that it can be reasonably demonstrated, using arguments derived from Catholic doctrines, that not only is it immoral to conscript women of child-bearing age, but it is also immoral to permit them to volunteer to serve in combat positions, except in strictly defensive situations such as might be found in “home front” scenarios wherein there is no longer any safe place to retreat.
In spite of the best efforts of modern America to make it otherwise, there remain deep, fundamental differences between men and women. Rooted in biology, these differences cannot really be removed. They can be minimized, denigrated, distorted, or ignored, but the fact remains that it is not men but women who carry pre-born children within their wombs.
Concern for Children
Concern for children is at the root of all objections to women in combat. Clearly, it is a disaster when a young mother dies, but it is an even greater tragedy when a young mother is killed in a combat zone that she did not have to be in. She leaves behind one or more young motherless children. But however disastrous her death may be to her children, these children are not the primary point of moral concern, for they still have fathers and other family members who can care for them. It is, rather, the uniqueness of women as bearers of pre-born children that creates a unique moral problem for women in combat. Catholic teachings on sexuality, marriage, and family life all impinge on the morality of placing women in close combat positions.
American women soldiers, sailors, and marines are recruited during their most fertile years. Thus, almost any woman in the military could become pregnant, willingly or unwillingly. As we know from the biological sciences, each individual human life begins at conception. Once pregnant, a woman carries within her womb an innocent non-combatant. If a pregnant woman willingly goes into combat, she is willingly endangering her child. If she is ordered into combat, her commander is endangering her pre-born baby, too. Even if neither knows of the pregnancy, the child is still endangered. Just-war theory (and common sense) holds that waging war on non-combatants is immoral. If it is immoral to bring war to non-combatants, surely it is likewise immoral to take an innocent non-combatant into a combat zone.
The Catechism’s Teaching
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the “moral law prohibits exposing someone to mortal danger without grave reason” and that “one is not exonerated from grave offense if, without proportionate reasons, he has acted in a way that brings about someone’s death, even without the intention to do so.” ( CCC, No. 2269). A war that is a grave necessity for a society is not necessarily one in which it is a grave necessity for the women in that society to actively fight. It might be moral for the men to fight in defense of their homeland but still be wrong for a pregnant woman to voluntarily do so, especially if it is possible for her to avoid combat and still be protected.
While an individual woman may have only two options (“fight” or “surrender”) when she is personally threatened with mortal force, her options are greater (“fight,” “surrender,” or “avoid fighting”) when it is a society’s existence rather than her own life that is threatened. A key point is whether the woman is already in physical danger when she takes up arms, or whether she first takes up arms and then deliberately goes into physical danger.
Married Women in Combat
A married woman in the military might become pregnant and not know it for a time, thus potentially carrying her child into danger, especially if she is called into combat on short notice. Catholic Church teaching, of course, prohibits the use of artificial contraception or sterilization. One cannot get out of a moral quandary by doing something immoral. Abstinence might be acceptable, but is the desire to serve in combat an adequate justification for abstinence? Does it fulfill Humanae Vitae’s requirement of a serious reason? What about the husband’s marriage rights? Can the state supplant these?
When a man serves in the military, the state might require that he serve time away from his wife for years. But if he should return home on leave, he and his wife may engage in marital relations, knowing that if a child is conceived, both mother and child are, presumably, safely out of the combat zone.
But there is no symmetry in the case of a female soldier. If she and her husband have relations at any time during her service, she may conceive and then, if called into action at short notice, carry her child, an innocent non-combatant, into a war zone. If, unknowingly, the woman goes into combat while pregnant, it is a tragedy. If she does this willingly, one could say that she is making a grave error fraught with moral implications.
Because any fertile woman could be or become pregnant, it is demonstrably wrong for women to volunteer for combat service, and it would be doubly wrong for a government to draft them into such service. Certainly this applies to married women, but what of unmarried ones?
The Problem of Rape
On the surface, it may seem that there can be no objection to having single women serve in combat. But a single woman who is sexually active faces the same problem as a married woman with respect to the possibility of carrying a baby into combat with her. Leaving aside for the moment the immorality of extra-marital sexual activity and the use of artificial contraception, the fact is that no contraceptive is 100 percent effective. Not even personal chastity will keep an unmarried woman soldier safe from the chance of getting pregnant—because of the possibility of rape upon capture.
The question of rape is touchy. Some would like to deny that it exists in modern warfare. After all, if both warring nations are signatories to the Geneva Conventions, then surely they will respect women prisoners? This is nonsense. As has been proven in war time and again, abuse of prisoners occurs even in spite of the official statements of a nation’s leadership and a nation’s participation in the Geneva Conventions. Furthermore, being sent into combat against non-signatory nations or groups is always possible, even likely, in our age.
The first Gulf War offers a case in point. It is a little-known fact that the Iraqis captured two American women soldiers during this war. It is even less well known that at least one of these women, Army Major Rhonda Cornum, was sexually assaulted. During testimony on the treatment of prisoners of war before a Congressional committee, Cornum said that she was “treated no differently than a male soldier would have been,” and it was only when asked explicitly that she admitted to having been sexually assaulted. In the current Iraq war, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, wounded and captured in the same ambush that took Lori Ann Piestewa’s life, was also apparently sexually assaulted.
It is understandable that women soldiers would be unwilling to draw attention to this sexual abuse. That America’s leadership has downplayed these episodes is less understandable.
The contention that female POWs are treated the same as male POWs is false. From the Vietnam War through the present day, there have been no substantiated reports of sexual abuse of male American POWs, although hundreds of male American POWs in Vietnam were tortured. None of the more than 5,000 American servicewomen in Vietnam was captured. But America’s brief experience with female POWs during the first Gulf War should have served as a warning of the sexual abuse female prisoners would face in future conflicts.
Major Rhonda Cornum stated that rape is “an occupational hazard of going to war, and you make the decision whether or not you are going to take that risk when you join the military.” Do women really agree to take the risk of rape when they enlist?
The Rojas Case
Recall also that during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, civilian Muslim women were often raped by soldiers with the deliberate intention of impregnating them and thus “disgracing” them. If civilian women are treated that badly, how much more likely is it that a woman soldier would be raped—particularly if the soldiers who capture her believe she has killed their comrades or dropped bombs on their homes? As C. S. Lewis noted in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “Battles are ugly when women fight.”
A recent case, that of the kidnapping of Columbian vice-presidential candidate Clara Rojas, is also relevant to this discussion. Rojas was seized by FARC guerillas and held for nearly six years. During this period, she was impregnated by one of the guerrillas. Her son, named Emmanuel, was born in captivity and later taken away from her by the guerrillas, who placed the child in foster care under a fake name. Fortunately, upon her release in 2008, Rojas was reunited with her son.
Although Rojas refuses to talk about the father of her child, it is clear that at no point in her captivity was she able to give truly free consent. (Some commentators have pointed to the well-known “Stockholm” syndrome—a psychological condition in which captives attempt to protect themselves by befriending or even offering sexual favors to their captors.) Her case is clearly one of a baby being conceived by rape of a prisoner in a war zone. Although Rojas was not in the military, it is clear that a female soldier held as a prisoner-of-war could face a similar scenario.
A woman who is captured and raped faces the possibility of conceiving and carrying a child in a war zone. A prisoner-of-war camp is part of the war zone and, by its very nature, a dangerous place. (The camp in which FARC guerrillas held Rojas was bombed by the Colombian military about ten days after Rojas’s son was born.)
Perhaps in such cases, the woman would be repatriated, but that cannot be guaranteed. It may indeed be unlikely, because the capturing nation or insurgent group would want to avoid the bad publicity surrounding the return of an obviously raped woman soldier. Perhaps her pre-born child would be forcibly aborted, or perhaps she’d be held captive until she gave birth and then have the child taken away from her. She might even be murdered in an attempt to cover up the crimes of her captors.
Finally, neither a married nor an unmarried woman can argue that she would simply remove herself from combat-readiness should she become pregnant. This argument is inadequate because there is typically a period of several weeks between the time a woman conceives a child and the time she first suspects she is pregnant. In the modern world, a soldier can be thrown into action in a matter of days or even, in the case of pilots, only a few hours. Also, the problem of rape persists.
It is theoretically possible that a woman who knows herself to be permanently infertile (e.g., a woman who has had a hysterectomy, or one who is post-menopausal) might be able to morally choose to serve in combat because she cannot possibly conceive a child. In reality, such women are usually not young, and in any case they do not make up a sizable percentage of those being considered for combat positions. Of course, the Church cannot condone, nor should the government encourage, deliberate sterilization for this purpose.
The moral argument against women in combat service applies not only to Catholic women but to all women, because it is based on fundamental principles and not simply on matters of church discipline. A woman still might morally volunteer to serve in the military in a non-combatant position where she is unlikely to face attack (e.g., as a nurse in a military hospital). One would not say that a woman must avoid all possibility of danger to herself and her child, but choosing to go into combat involves the deliberate choice to enter into severe mortal danger. This question is not about a woman facing the possibility of her own death but rather about the morality of a woman deliberately choosing to place an innocent child in danger.
Questions to Be Considered
Several ancillary questions arise from this discussion: May a government ever require (draft) or even allow a woman to serve in a position where she might be raped? May a government interfere with marriage by requiring military service of women, or does not the duty of a mother supersede any rights of the state in military matters? May both parents serve in the military at the same time, knowing that an emergency could result in their children being left parentless, at least temporarily if not permanently?
Precisely because of its implications and timeliness, the issue of the immorality of women serving in combat needs to be discussed and examined in much greater detail than it has been to date.
Quo vadis, America?
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“Mothers in the Line of Fire” first appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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