A Look at Servicewomen in Harm's Way in Iraq

Ten percent of U.S. troops in Iraq are women, and more servicewomen have died there than in any other conflict. Brookings Institution scholar Michael O'Hanlon, author of the Iraq Index, talks to Farai Chideya about the roles servicewomen play in Iraq.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

About 10 percent of our troops in Iraq are women, according to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The total number of service men and women is roughly 145,000. Though women are barred from being in the infantry and directly serving in combat; 71 women have died in Iraq so far. That's more female troop deaths that in any other U.S. war.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He co-authors their Iraq Index, and I asked him how many American servicewomen in Iraq are actually in harm's way.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Brookings Institution): Well, you give a very good statistic, that women are about 10 percent of the force, so maybe two to three percent of the number of fatalities, with 71 having given their lives in this mission, and so that gives you some rough sense right there of the relative danger of the jobs they are doing. They're about a fourth as dangerous, on average, as the overall typical job in Iraq. But obviously that's plenty of danger.

There are a lot of women who have been killed. There are a lot who have been hurt, and we all know, going back to the very opening weeks of this war, that the women who are involved even in so-called support missions are also at risk. There are no safe jobs in Iraq to speak of, and you can see it in the casualty information.

CHIDEYA: I can't help but think of an image that was on the cover of Newsweek magazine, of a young soldier sitting with her legs crossed, and they were crossed at the knee. And there were no - there was not much leg below her knee. She had both of her legs amputated as a result of explosive device along the roadside. And so that's the kind of casualty you're talking about, isn't it?

Mr. O'HANLON: Absolutely. And this is the kind of casualty that really spares no one who goes to Iraq. No one who's out on the roads, at least, at any time.

CHIDEYA: Explain exactly what the policy is, because it seems as if this war is highlighting a kind of gray zone in the gender roles within the military. What exactly are women allowed to do?

Mr. O'HANLON: Women are really allowed to do most things overall, if you are going to summarize, because as you've pointed out correctly, they are not allowed to do some of the frontline infantry combat work. But I think overall you're looking at, let's say, probably 75 percent of most of the jobs, in rough terms, being open to both sexes. And many jobs that we might once have thought of as being pretty close to heavy-duty combat, and which are often quite combat-oriented, are open to women, many of the piloting jobs, for example.

So I think the overall assumption should be that women are not doing the frontline infantry fighting, but they are doing most other things. And if in doubt, you should probably assume that the job is open to a woman just as it is to a man in today's U.S. military.

CHIDEYA: Do you think America is ready for the idea of female warriors coming home in body bags the same way and at the same rate that men have been?

Mr. O'HANLON: No, I don't think we're quite ready for that, but we're getting closer to that. And certainly 71 fatalities for those women, they gave their all, and they gave their lives in defense of their nation. And so I think the basic principle has been established.

CHIDEYA: Well, Michael O'Hanlon, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. O'HANLON: My pleasure. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.

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