Women and war

Women in war #

The Amazons #

“In Greek myth, Amazons were fierce warrior women of exotic Eastern lands, as courageous and skilled in battle as the mightiest Greek heroes. Amazons were major characters not only in the legendary Trojan War but also in the chronicles of the greatest Greek city-state, Athens.

“Every great champion of myth – Heracles, Theseus, Achilles – proved his valor by overcoming powerful warrior queens and their armies of women. Those glorious struggles against foreign man-killers were re­counted in oral tales and written epics and illustrated in countless art­works throughout the Greco-Roman world. Famous historical figures, among them King Cyrus of Persia, Alexander the Great, and the Roman general Pompey, also tangled with Amazons. Greek and Latin authors never doubted that Amazons had existed in the remote past, and many reported that women living the life of Amazons still dwelled in lands around the Black Sea and beyond. Modern scholars, on the other hand, usually consign Amazons to the realm of the Greek imagination.

Among the nomad horse-riding peoples of the steppes known to the Greeks as ‘Scythians,’ women lived the same rugged outdoor life as the men. These ‘warlike tribes have no cities, no fixed abodes,’ wrote one ancient historian; ’they live free and unconquered, so savage that even the women take part in war.’ Archaeology reveals that about one out of three or four nomad women of the steppes was an active warrior buried with her weapons.

The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World Adrienne Mayor Princeton University Press, 2014 Pages: 10-12 ……. When Achilles saw the queen of the Amazons, he instantly fell in love. You can see why. Penthesilea had everything: courage, flashing eyes, a ravishing smile and, if the statues are to be believed, a laissez-faire way with shoulder straps. One breast is almost always popping out.

There was just one problem: she also had a spear through her heart, and it was he who had put it there. Penthesilea had approached on horseback in full armour and he speared both her and horse in one. When he took her off he realised what he had done, but it was too late. She quivered and died “like meat on a spit”.

Achilles, ruing that he had caused an actual mort rather than la petite, grieved bitterly.

She deserved his tears: being an Amazon in ancient times was, even at its best, a bit of a mixed bag. On the bright side you escaped the dreary fate of a Greek wife (weaving, women’s quarters, husbands who were fonder of pederasty than of you).

If there is any truth in the Amazon legend, then it lies in the Scythian and Sarmatian graves to be found here. In Ukraine in a 4th-century BC grave, one woman was buried with iron lance points and arrows in a feathered quiver.

Another woman in a 7th-century BC grave in Tuva was buried in a gold cap deco¬rated with a panther and (less ferociously) a wooden ladle with a golden handle. Perhaps even Amazons liked cooking occasionally.

Catherine Nixey is author of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. THE TIMES

Amazons: The Real Warrior Women of the Ancient World By John Man, Bantam.

Comfort women #

The Silence of the Girls - by Pat Barker deals with The Iliad. Briseis isn’t described as “silent.” She doesn’t need to be. Although we see her in Book 1, she doesn’t speak until Book 19. It is not until then, in her mourning speech for Achilles’s beloved friend Patroclus, that we are told anything about her other than that she has beautiful cheeks and that she leaves unwillingly to be transferred to Agamemnon.

At last we learn that she is the prize of the man who killed her husband, her father, and her brothers—and yet her only hope for safety for herself and any children she might have is what Patroclus once promised her: marriage to Achilles. Barker skillfully shows us what active political strategies the women construct in their captivity, protecting one another, sharing useful rumors, shrewdly assessing the men’s characters.

Their camp life reminds me of the World War II diary A Woman in Berlin, the anonymous account by a German woman of the Russian army’s mass rapes at the end of the war. She describes how safety lay in forming an exclusive relationship, so as to be less vulnerable to gang rape. In Barker’s scene of Chryseis’s departure, some of the captive women fantasize about taking her place: “To be Agamemnon’s prize…It didn’t come more comfortable than that.”

Siege of Leningrad

The 900-day Siege of Leningrad, which claimed hundreds of thousands of Russian lives during World War II.

Despite this incredible loss of life, the memory of the Siege has been all but obscured in contemporary Russia: “The blockade is hidden,” writes Barskova, “it seems to generate not so much new forms of discreetness as total muteness.”

In Bean Pole, (2019) Director Kantemir Balagov recreates the trauma of a devastated city. The Nazis demolishing its buildings and leaving its citizens in tatters, physically and mentally. Two young women, serving as comfort women for Soviet troops attempt to search for meaning and hope in the struggle to rebuild their lives amongst the ruins.

Rape #

Partly retribution, but largely as an incentive to soldiers, the abasement of women became a hallmark of all war booty. From barbaric raids by hordes of Vikings, Mongolians, to Christian attacks on each other, or on Muslims, or Muslims on Christian, or Hindus on Muslims, rape has become an integral reward for risking your life in conquest.

Mary Jo Anderson writes:

By 800, Christians had been backed into the northernmost region of Spain by the Moors and a humiliating tribute of a 100 virgins per year was demanded of local governors.

When the Roman Crusaders were welcomed into Constantinople, they betrayed their hosts by raping and killing Greek Orthodox Nuns in the Cathedral of Haigia Sophia. When Russian troops began their advance into Hitler’s Germany, Officers stood leisurely by as their troops took turns raping any German women they came across.

War sanctions man’s bloody sadistic brutality. Women usually bore the brunt of men’s violence. Soldiers were repeatedly rewarded with promises of booty and sexual conquest, by the Pope. Recurring motifs of the debasement of women first - stripped naked to parade in victory marches, and as sexual slaves to lust filled and sex starved soldiers.

Oliver Cromwell “had a savage streak in his nature” and that he “enjoyed inflicting death, injury or humiliation on those against whom he had taken.” At Naseby he allowed the foot soldiers of the New Model Army to commit hideous atrocities against the enemy’s female camp-followers, killing over a hundred and disfiguring others by cutting noses and slicing cheeks.

In the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, in Amritsar, on the Indian side of the border, a large group of Muslim women was stripped naked, paraded through the streets and raped by a Sikh mob.

In most wars, women become victims, as victorious troops exact revenge by stripping and raping them. Stripping is generally a mark of humiliation and indignity to emphasise dominance.

Women’s contributions #

Sarah Percy, Professor of International Relations, The University of Queensland writes:

Women have long fought in wars, but their contribution is often erased. The military historian John Keegan famously wrote in 1993 that

warfare is […] the one human activity from which women, with the most insignificant exceptions, have always and everywhere stood apart […] Women […] do not fight. They rarely fight among themselves and they never, in any military sense, fight men. If warfare is as old as history and as universal as mankind, we must now enter the supremely important limitation that it is an entirely masculine activity.

But it turns out history is full of examples of women on the frontlines: women who fought in their own right, women who dressed as men in order to fight, and women who faced great danger supporting male troops in the teeth of battle. Women have survived and even thrived as part of the machine of war – but are rarely part of military history. Why have their stories been forgotten?

The amnesia about women in combat is a convenient, if not deliberate, forgetting.

During the American Civil War, (1861–65), between 250 and 1,000 women fought. (The reason for the variation in all these numbers is that it is impossible to know how many disguised women fought. Sarah Percy, Professor of International Relations, The University of Queensland writing for The Conversation.