Women With Guns
They were fit and strong and humorless. “It’s difficult to say how many people I’ve killed,” a Tiger named Seetha, age twenty-two, told me. What I remember most from that trip are the tiny vials of cyanide that Seetha and every other Tiger wore around their necks, like pieces of jewelry. Capture at the hands of the Sri Lankan government often meant torture, so the Tigers weren’t taking the risk.
It was strange, meeting those women. They were impossible not to like, even to respect, despite—or even because of—their brutality. And that was it: they were as tough as the men. The Tigers, run at the time by a cult-leader-like figure named Velupillai Prabhakaran, started drafting women into the army not because Prabhakaran was a feminist but because so many of the men, after more than fifteen years of fighting, were dead. There was a surplus of women, and they wanted to fight. The headline that ran with my story was “Women Dying to be Equal.”
I thought of the Tiger ladies yesterday when I read about the decision, by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, to rescind the ban on American servicewomen in combat. The order was a long time coming. A dozen years ago, it would have been remarkable for American women to be shooting people and losing their eyes and legs in war. Not anymore. In the twelve years since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, the military has been steadily pushing women into jobs that no one could call “non-combat” without stripping the phrase of its meaning. Nowadays, women fly Apache helicopters—giant, terrifying killing machines armed with rockets and cannon. Women fly medevac helicopters, often descending directly into firefights to carry away wounded soldiers as they take enemy fire. Members of what the military calls “female engagement teams” venture into remote Afghan villages—nearly all of which are contested by the Taliban—to talk to Afghan women because of the cultural barriers that stand in the way of American men. What’s “non-combat” about those jobs?
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