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Women in the war trenches 70 years ago

Published February 23, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As we consider the prospect of American women in ground combat, we might look for perspective to the experiences of Soviet women who served in brutal combat conditions, alongside men, during World War II.

Nearly a million Soviet teenage girls and young women served on the front lines. They were stationed on active battlefields, under the same bombs and bullets as men, providing vital combat communication as well as on-field medical care and evacuation of the wounded.

They took part in raids as snipers and partisans. They shot antiaircraft artillery. They flew combat missions as fighter and bomber pilots. When the job entailed killing, they killed. They carried heavy equipment. Soviet women in combat performed valiantly and ably, and the Allied war effort benefited greatly from their participation. Thousands sacrificed their lives.

Of course, conditions were different then. For one, ground combat with massive numbers of troops accounted for a great deal of the action. Second, the ruthless German invasion, violating the conventions of war, forced the Soviets to fight for their very survival.

The Soviet Union's male soldiers were killed, crippled and captured by the millions. Girls as young as 16 filled the gap. It did not matter whether entering combat was a good idea; it was a necessity. Fortunately, we Americans have never been in this desperate position.

Twenty-first century combat is not 1940s combat, and America is not the Soviet Union. We have different circumstances, challenges, sensibilities. During the 1930s, the Soviet Union put great effort into raising a generation of physically strong people — male and female – viewing themselves as defenders of the Motherland. Could this training stem youthful hormones and create a genderless fighting force? Not entirely. Unending bloodshed, living for weeks and months in trenches in frigid temperatures, layers of bulky clothing, hunger, lice, stench and the constant need to stay vigilant to stay alive accomplished what training could not.

With American women in the workplace in most jobs these days — an alien idea 40 or 50 years ago — we know that women and men can work together and that women can lead. As mechanized and distance combat replace face-to-face ground combat, there are more opportunities for women to be effective in reaching military objectives.

So can we make women in ground combat work today, for America? There's a good chance, as we are an innovative, solution-oriented people with a fondness for equality. And some American women, like the Soviet women, will be able to stretch themselves beyond the capabilities we might expect.

But if there is face-to-face ground combat, do we really want to send women on a large scale if we are not facing imminent, critical danger to our own homeland? That is a big question, and we look to the eligible women themselves for input.

We should consider the possibility that women may have something to add to the military, such as more dimensions and strengths than they already have contributed. And perhaps we'll look back in 20 years and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Jan Sherbin is a writer who has reported on Soviet women who saw combat in World War II.