Yvonne Roberts: Why be surprised that women are cruel in war?

It's likely, given the rise in the number of female recruits to the army, that there will be other Lisa Germans

During the Falklands War, a popular image, at least in the tabloid press, was that of a couple of girls, bras off, chests bared, giving a uniquely womanly welcome to the boys as they sailed safely back into harbour. Two decades on, in the wake of yet another war, it's no longer breasts out that make an indelible female impression - but that of Master Sergeant Lisa Girman putting the boot in, hard, to the groin, head and abdomen of an Iraqi prisoner.

Lisa Girman, 35, was the most senior person in charge during the incident at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq . While she attacked the prisoner, she encouraged her subordinates to join in. Scott McKenzie, 38, held a prisoner's legs apart and encouraged soldiers to kick him in the groin, abdomen and head. Then he stepped on the prisoner's injured arm. A third soldier, Timothy Canjar, also battered a prisoner.

The three have been discharged, demoted and fined - although a court martial and incarceration would have said more about alleged American fairness and justice. The BBC television current affairs series Panorama broadcast a film late last year which followed several routine days in the American occupation of Iraq. It harrowingly revealed nervy, over-stretched and frequently arrogant young soldiers resorting to bullying, humiliation and "soft" violence towards a frequently elderly civilian population.

Given that backdrop and Lisa Girman's years in the army, it doesn't require a cynic to suggest that this particular display of thuggery was probably not a rare loss of control It's also highly likely, given the significant increase in the number of female recruits to the services and the crude cocktail of patriotism and superiority fed to the US army overseas, that there will be other Lisa Girmans .

Traditionalists may counter that this is another price to be paid, for nature being turned on its head. A woman's hand should be on the cradle or round the cooking pot, not disembowelling the enemy. What that attitude reveals is the price we pay when we edit history to suit the needs of propaganda, reducing as we do so the horrors of war while chaining both women and men to the illiberal, racist handcuffs of nationalism and imperialism (ancient and modern) in the process.

Of course, women have always fought hand to hand and tortured their captives alongside men, in the name of freedom or revenge or religion, or a mix of all three. Yet, while many wars have had their female soldiers-in-arms ( more recently, for example, in Zimbabwe, Angola and Rwanda) their presence has often been rendered invisible - apart from the Amazons portrayed in popular culture as a squadron of Loaded cover girls.

What's been acceptable instead, is the alleged female exception to the rule . The solitary mythic figure, who stands apart from her gender in her willingness to draw blood - from Boadicea to Phoolan Devi, the Indian Bandit Queen killed in 2001, who had massacred and murdered, revered by the low castes as a female Robin Hood.

The preservation of the stereotype of womanliness, nurturing, caring, humane, has been deemed far more important than the truth revealed by history that females - even without an overdose of testosterone - can inflict the most terrible cruelties. "In every man there lurks an indestructible kernel of darkness from the moment of his birth," wrote Simone de Beauvoir several decades ago - as if a small ray of sunshine lights up every female soul.

The alleged faintheartedness of women has not only shored up the patriarchy, it has also provided the main spur to men to kill, to protect their vulnerable mothers and maidens at home from barbarians, (black) savages and Huns. This motivation is stripped of all power when those in need of protection are dressed in fatigues, ordering you to boot a prisoner in the balls.

Official propaganda during the Second World War, repeatedly portrayed a certain type of white, posh, beautiful woman, pluckily striding through an English rural village, spending the war, as the academic Wendy Webster describes, "looking at photographs of soldiers on the mantelpiece", preparing homes for returning heroes. In truth, half a million women enlisted . An extract from a US war department booklet issued to American soldiers arriving here said: "British women have proved themselves in this war. They have delivered messages afoot after their motor cycles have been blasted from under them... They have died at their gun posts... When you see a girl in uniform with a bit of ribbon in her tunic, remember she didn't get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich."

No matter what US officialdom said, it was the British government's constant reminder of women as wives and sock knitters, passive symbols of decency, which prevailed. The emotional strength of that narrative was revealed again last year in Iraq, with a modern twist. In May 2003, Private Jessica Lynch was part of an maintenance company when it was ambushed. Her colleague, Lorie Piestewa, a native American mother of two, died fighting.

The US government alleged that Lynch was wounded, arrested, tortured and raped. Her "rescue" was filmed. She was turned into the All American blonde heroine, defiled by "the foreigner". This is what our men are fighting for, was the not so subliminal message. Jessica was unwittingly standing in the propaganda shadow of plucky British memsahbs in the Raj and the doughty white women fighting off the Mau Mau in the 1950s.

In November, in her autobiography, I Am A Soldier, Too, Jessica, outed herself as an anti-heroine. Now, a millionaire, she told the truth. She had not fought. Instead, she had fallen to her knees and prayed. She had been cared for by the Iraqi doctors. She had not been raped and there had been no need for a rescue raid with "all guns blazing". She had been turned into a propaganda doll - while her black colleague, Shoshana Johnson, also taken by the Iraqis, had been discharged from the army on a shameful pension of $500 a month.

"They used me to symbolise all this stuff," Jessica Lynch said. "It's wrong. I don't know why... they say these things." "They" say it to shore up the wavering belief in what Tony Blair, earlier this week, called, "a noble and just cause". They say it to accentuate the ordinary soldier's conviction that what Blair termed "the virus of Islamic extremism" is a real and present danger, infecting family, home and hearth unless extreme measures are taken - when, what confronts them on the ground is human misery, confusion and people being doubly punished, first by a dictator and now by their occupiers.

Lisa Girman, for those blind to history, will probably also become an exception among her gender. It would be better if we accepted that both men and women, given power, have the capacity to behave without compassion. What is heartening is that she and her colleagues were reported by soldiers who witnessed the abuses. Obedience to authority which over-rules personal scruples, so common in war and its aftermath, has not entirely prevailed in this instance.

At the same time, the fall-out from Jessica Lynch plus the daily images of "freedom" in Iraq are forcing the American population to re-examine the covert and overt propaganda it has so readily digested over the past several decades of its country's foreign intervention. Propaganda, the fuel of nationalism, only works well on those whom, for whatever reasons, fail to think for themselves.

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