Comment: Are women warriors really happy to muscle in on a male myth?

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At the movies, they are watching Demi Moore in GI Jane, a boot- camp epic about battering a woman until she becomes an American soldier. At the Ministry of Defence, they have decided to let women serve as gunners, although not yet in tanks or the infantry.

There is nothing new about women in battle. The West - Europe and North America - has kept female soldiers out of the front line for the last few centuries, but the rest of the world never ceased pushing them into the trenches when hard-pressed. What is new is the demand of Western women to get into combat as of right - as a privilege rather than a dire necessity.

All that Kate Muir predicted in her 1992 book Arms And The Woman is coming true. Since November 1995, 4,970 women have served in the American forces in Bosnia. They carry weapons; they command heavy armoured vehicles in action and fire their guns. Lt Col Mary C Freis, commander of a military police battalion in Bosnia, told the Washington Post: "If a woman thinks like a warrior, believes she's a warrior, then she'll do what it takes." The same reporter heard a private describe the tobacco-chewing Lt Cecilia who gave him orders: "She burps, farts, smokes, scratches, dips and spits more than I do, and she's a female. I have a hard time with my manhood."

The driver may have a problem with her. But the thought of Lt Cecilia scratching, farting and blowing away recalcitrant Serbs with her M-16 will turn a lot of men on. All through history, male attitudes to women warriors have been ambiguous. It's also a fact, though, that the better and wiser minority of our species have been trying for centuries to get at least some categories of the human race off the killing fields. To stop men killing men is a tall order. But a start could be made by removing women, children and even civilians in general from the waging of war and its consequences.

In Scotland the other day I picked up a remarkable booklet entitled Adomnan's 'Law of the Innocents'. Adomnan was the seventh- century Abbot of Iona, the biographer of his predecessor St Columba. But he was also one of the great European pioneers of what we would now call international law and "Rules of War". Exactly 1,300 years ago, in 697, he travelled from Iona to Ireland to promulgate the Cain Adomnain, a law for the whole north- western Celtic world which laid down a code for the protection of women, children and clerics in time of war and a stiff list of penalties. From Clonmacnoise in Ireland to the Pictish kingdom in Scotland, 92 kings, princes, abbots and bishops swore to obey Adomnan's statute.

The Law of the Innocents is above all about the defence of women. An Irish hymn, centuries later, proclaimed that "to Adomnan of Iona, whose troop is radiant, noble Jesus has granted the lasting freedom of the women of the Gaels". Adomnan saw women as victims in two ways. They were the objects of every kind of random savagery, humiliated in the home and slaughtered almost casually by individual men or by armies. But they were also, in their capacity as enslaved items of male property, frequently used as soldiers in war.

This Gaelic world in which Adomnan lived was a cultural unity but a political patchwork, divided into countless mini-kingdoms. From its monasteries stretching across Ireland into western Scotland, Celtic Christianity sent missionaries and teachers of enlightenment far across central and western Europe. But at home, the tiny kingdoms were constantly warring.

A later addition to the Law's text gives a wild picture of a woman soldier driven to war. "Her bag of provisions hung on one side of her, her infant on the other side; her wooden pole was on her back, 30 feet in length, with an iron hook at one end which she would plunge into the hair of another woman out of the other battalion. Her man would be behind her, a fence- post in his hand, flogging her into battle ..." Another passage, part of a mythical introduction in which Adomnan's mother persecutes him until he agrees to save women, speaks of a battlefield covered with the corpses of women and their babies, including a king's wife from Tara (whom Adomnan brings back to life).

Under this ornamental crust of oddities and miracles, there is a hard core of rules. The killing, wounding or beating of women in any circumstances is to be punished with penalties ranging from death and mutilation to fines payable to the Iona monastery and its agents. There are punishments not only for rape but for sexual harassment, physical ("a hand put under her clothing to her shame") or verbal ("making a good woman blush").

Even a woman who murders is not to be executed, but should be pushed out to sea in a small boat with a paddle and a pot of gruel. The Law of the Innocents also applies, with a different scale of fines and penalties, to priests and monks and to children "until they are capable of killing a man, till they have a place in the tribe ..."

Only last month, I wrote about Edmund Cairns's book A Safer Future, an Oxfam proposal to uphold the rights of civilians caught up in the horror of low-level war. Adomnan and Cairns, with over a thousand years between them, are campaigning in the same good cause. But Adomnan was in one way more radical. He demanded not only that "the innocent" should be spared by the combatants, but that half the human race - the female half - should be excluded for ever from taking up arms. It never occurred to him that one day women would rise up against such a ban and call it "discrimination".

Men have always found ways to accommodate women warriors into their own sexual myths. The favourite image is the bold woman who defends her fort or city against a siege. In a shrewd article in the latest History Workshop Journal, Ulinka Rublack shows that this is a simple metaphor for "virtuous" Woman rebuffing unlicensed penetration by rape or seduction. Among many examples, she cites the famous Gesche Meiburg, who led the women of Braunschweig in 1615 to "man" the walls with sword and musket and beat off the enemy .

Gesche, who was actually 34, had to be represented in woodcuts as a young and innocent girl. The Protestant city of Magdeburg ("maiden city" in German ) had an effigy of a virgin over its gate, and when it was captured and sacked by the Catholic armies in the Thirty Years' War, a Lutheran popular song turned the town's fall into a rape mourned by the maiden herself: "White and pure was my body / Now sword and flame have violated it ..."

A much-loved Hungarian painting by Szekely shows the women of Eger - their menfolk dead or wounded - slashing and stabbing the Turks off the city battlements. And as a boy, I read the story of how Black Agnes defended the castle of Dunbar against King Edward I of England. She and her attendant ladies mocked the enemy by dusting the walls with a lacy handkerchief whenever they were struck by a stone from the English siege-engines. And yet these women became heroines essentially because they saved the honour of the men they "belonged" to - not just because they fought well and bravely.

War is a male myth, and nothing can change that. So I prefer Adomnan to GI Jane. If in some nightmare he had met Lt Cecilia, he would have rung his magic bell at her ("the bell that has laid waste kings in defence of women") until the carbine fell from her tobacco-stained fingers. And then, I suspect, he would issue her with paddle and K-Ration of porridge and push her - gently but firmly - out to sea.