Recent tensions between the United Mates and Iraq over U.N. weapons inspections recall a period seven years this January when the U.S. Congress spent three days intensely debating several resolutions that would have either authorized the use military force in Iraq.
Ultimately, Congress did authorize military force, and the Persian Gulf War ensued. One noteworthy aspect of the congressional debate is that there were almost no expressions of concern about women as a class, either as soldiers, civilians, or war casualties. This near silence on the "women and war" question is remarkable given that the presence of 32,000 female soldiers in the Persian Gulf prompted several reporters to dub the conflict a "mommy's war." In addition, the 102nd Congress had more female members (thirty) than at any other time in U.S. history. Nearly half of these members had identified themselves as feminists or as strong supporters of women's interests.
The eight female legislators who were active environmentalists were similarly silent on how a Middle East war would affect the ecosystem. Of the more than fifty speeches, given by women during the debate, only Representative Nancy Pelosi of California raised the subject of the Persian Gulf War's possible effect on the environment. The scenarios she outlined seem eerily prescient given the catastrophe that ensued. Even though she merely described some of the devastation that would occur if Saddam Hussein fulfilled his public threat to blow up Kuwaiti oil fields, her speech prompted ridicule from her colleagues.
I believe that this situation demonstrates the difficulty of raising feminist and environmental issues during times of heightened military activity, even when the consequences for women and the environment are enormous. The three-day televised debate in Congress provides a fascinating case study in the variety of communication barriers with which female legislators contend--barriers that are even more onerous when women must deal with the topics of war and peace. It also provides an opportunity to make a case for the important yet often overlooked relationship between rape and other forms of sexual assault, militarism, and environmental degradation.
The Gulf War Debates
If there ever is a time when the free and open exchange of argument and persuasion contribute to the health of a democracy, it is in deciding whether to wage war. Unfortunately, U.S. history is riddled with wars that were never declared (for example, the Vietnam War and the Panamanian War); this made the 1991 congressional debate a rare and extraordinary opportunity to deliberate over the reasons for war or peace. For three days, Americans heard and watched their elected representatives somberly claim never to have voted on a more important resolution. The importance of their decision, it was repeated, necessitated an exploration of all the possible ramifications of a vote to go to war. There was much talk about "saving face," "having egg on our faces," the crisis being a "defining moment in history," "sending a message" to Saddam Hussein, the need to "stand firm with resolve and unity," and the upcoming war as the "last, best hope for peace." Many members of the House spoke briefly about the potential deaths of U.S. soldiers, but in general the debate was more a discussion of the economic, political, and geostrategic ramifications of a war with Iraq.
In contrast to the lengthy speeches on how a Persian Gulf War might affect Middle Eastern stability, U.S. military might, the world economy, and the new world order, Representative Barbara Boxer of California was the only female legislator to discuss any aspect of women and war. Her comments on this topic were limited to two very brief statements, one in which she noted that female soldiers in Saudi Arabia were treated differently than their male comrades and one in which she decried the military's practice of sending single parents or both parents to the Gulf. Unfortunately, Boxer's examples of how the female soldiers were treated ultimately served to belittle their capabilities. She said:
They are working very hard and they are
explaining to us how it feels to have to go into
the back door to use the gymnasium because
the Saudis do not want them to come in the
front door. They have to fight to get to have the
use of the gymnasium, and then, once they are
in there, being subjected to literature trying to convert
them [to Islam]. It is tough for them to take.... In the
rules our service people are told that women are not
allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. If they are in their military
vehicle and in their military uniforms, it is OK.
However, I was informed that if they do that and they
attempt to drive into town in their military car and in
their uniforms, they are run off the road by the Saudis.
The problem with Boxer's statement is that it was not linked to any broader discussion of the justification for or against going to war. She did not use these stories to raise her colleagues' consciousness about the morality of sending female soldiers to a war to reestablish nondemocratic monarchies, to defend societies where women's rights and movements are severely curtailed, or to talk about the environmental effects of war on women and other humans. By failing to link these anecdotes to a broader examination of the war's purpose, Boxer inadvertently reinforced the image of female soldiers as weak and incapable of enduring the rigors of war. Who would argue that the discomfort of going through back doors and having religious literature thrust upon them is in any way comparable to the discomfort of being on the "front line" in a desert combat zone?
Ironically, Boxer did not discuss other issues about women and war that are serious and pervasive. Neither she nor her female colleagues discussed the likelihood of U.S., Iraqi, Kuwaiti, and Saudi Arabian women being raped and sexually assaulted during the war. None of the women discussed the deleterious health effects of war on female munitions workers, …