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Partners in war, and in ending it

The inclusion of women in front-line combat operations is a belated recognition of their already-substantial role in the US military. 

Andy Wong/AP
A tourist posed at the Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses in Xi’an, in central China’s Shaa nxi Province.

In his book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” journalist Chris Hedges described war as a drug. I haven’t seen as much war as a frontline soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan has, nor as much as Mr. Hedges, but I do know from several experiences in war zones that war has an aggressive and, yes, even an attractive quality to those who participate in it. 

 By saying that, I do not for a millisecond mean to minimize the suffering of the soldiers and civilians killed and maimed; the families who lose loved ones, are displaced, or split apart; or the veterans struggling with haunting memories and traumatic stress. I do not mean to imply that these people are anything other than the victims of a cruel and destructive scourge. War is an abomination. The day humanity leaves it behind should become a global holiday marking our species’ graduation to a higher level of morality.

 For now, though, war continues to seduce people. In war, normal life is suspended. Routines abruptly stop; ad hoc behavior becomes the norm. Few can avert their eyes from a military demonstration of shock and awe, whether with broadsword and catapult or stealth bomber and battle tank. But that’s the point of war – to seize the human mind with an animal display of force. The citizen warriors described 4,000 years ago in Homer’s blood-soaked epic “The Iliad” quickly found that “battle thrilled them more than the journey home, than sailing hollow ships to their dear native land.” They had become addicted.

 Where are we on the continuum of loving war or leaving it? Some military thinkers say we are at least beyond the era of industrial warfare. Even the dispute between Russia and the West over Ukraine seems unlikely to break into direct nation-on-nation conflict. Instead, we’re seeing war by other means – subversion, cyberattacks, intimidation, the leveraging of economics and propaganda. The conflicts of the 21st century probably won’t be remembered for their Pattons and Rommels. Violence will still be part of warfare, but likely not the main part.

Future asymmetrical and ambiguous wars will require skills well beyond the ability to charge into the teeth of machine-gun fire. Waging them will be more like police work, involving intelligence gathering, source development, social networking, and antiterror tactics. Yes, there will still be pitched battles. But as in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, that will come after weeks, months, and sometimes years of spadework.

A Monitor cover story by Pentagon correspondent Anna Mulrine takes us inside American military training centers as they prepare women for official involvement in combat missions. Women must handle physically demanding skills such as hauling a much heavier comrade to safety. As you’ll see, with sufficient training, women are as able as men to master these tasks. But such tasks are only a small part of modern war, and different men and different women will always perform at different levels of proficiency. But difference also brings advantage: In Iraq and Afghanistan, women attached to combat units have been able to talk with local women and gain vital intelligence in ways men could not. 

And just as different types of men experience war differently – some as drawn to it, some reluctantly doing their duty, some repulsed by what occurs – it will be the same for women. Men and women will be a more effective team in modern warfare. How much better it would be, however, if men and women teamed up to hasten the end of war altogether.

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor at large. He can be reached at

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