Sunday, September 04, 2005

Courageous Military Women


Reviews by Sidney Allinson

Recently, it was announced that US Army Private Jessica Lynch is to be paid a million dollars for a book about her seven days as a prisoner-of-war in Iraq. Her story contrasts with three recent books about many Canadian, American, and British women who faced warfare with scant praise or financial reward for it.
Less well known than Pvt. Lynch, and by no means as handsomely paid, is US Army Major Rhonda Cornum, who was briefly a POW in Iraq 12 years ago. Soon afterwards, she wrote She Went To War, [Ballantine Books, New York, 203 pages, photographs, $22.95.] When first published in 1992, it was declared one of the most notable books of the year by The New York Times, and is now re-published because of current events in the Middle East.
"As told to Peter Copeland," it is a ghost-written account which reflects a gallant soldier, physician, and pilot, who just happens to be a woman. As well as being a military officer, she is also a wife, and had to leave her husband and child when assigned to duty in the Persian Gulf in 1990. She refreshes our memory of that first go-around with Saddam Hussein after his army invaded Kuwait. Her compassion for ordinary Muslim people is clear, as is her unabashed patriotism and personal belief in the justice of America's cause at the time. She is a strong proponent of women in the military, and makes a sturdy case for increasing the proportionate number of female soldiers even more.
Cornum was a 34-year-old flight surgeon on a mission to rescue a downed pilot when anti-aircraft fire crashed her helicopter onto the Iraq desert. Five of her fellow soldiers were killed and Cornum suffered two broken arms and a gunshot wound. In severe pain, she was taken prisoner, one of the two American servicewomen who became POWs in Operation Desert Storm. Her courage during the next week earned her the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart medals. After being roughly dragged from the wreckage without regard for her injuries, she was hustled away by her captors for interrogation.
She had heard how some Iraqi soldiers had sexually abused women in Kuwait, but other than having her wedding ring stolen, at first there was not as much violence as she expected. However while she was being transported in the back of a truck, a guard tried to rape her. She recalls being more incredulous than anything else at the time, aware of her own bloody and mud-caked appearance. Fortunately, she managed to keep her would-be molester at bay by struggling and screaming loudly throughout the entire 30-minute drive.
Cornum describes what she stoically went through while a POW for the next six days, constantly uncertain if she was going to live or die. Some captors treated her with kindness, while others made her watch the torture of male American prisoners. When hostilities soon ended, she was returned to the States and repeatedly honoured by lavish ceremonials, like Pvt. Lynch. Without intending to denigrate either individual personally, their elevation to media celebrity status for one-week experiences does seem a little overblown, considering that many thousands of Allied men and women endured up to six years captivity in pre-CNN wars without any public acclaim afterwards.
Among the very bravest of them are described in The Women Who Lived For Danger, by Marcus Binney [Coronet Books, London, 380 pages, photos, index, bibliography, $16.99.] During World War II, thirty-seven female secret agents of Britain's Special Operations Executive infiltrated German-occupied France to work as couriers, radio operators, or saboteurs. Thirteen were captured and tortured to death or executed in concentration camps. Binney ably combines fresh details from newly released official files in the Public Records Office with personal interviews with a few elderly survivors to write the story of eight of these outstandingly gallant women.

He does an excellent job of describing their lives, characters, and achievements, though the tragic fate of some makes grim reading. They all volunteered for highly dangerous clandestine warfare, despite knowing the one-in-four odds of being arrested, brutally ill-treated, and murdered. Their personnel files described them variously as being "talkative," or "clumsy," while others were assessed as "determined," or "a crack shot." In the end, though, every one of them proved to be courageous almost beyond belief.

Mostly aged in their twenties, SOE "girls" (as they were called) were given arduous training in physical fitness, weapons, and radio codes before being sent into action. Photographs show they were not only youthful, most were attractive as well –- too conspicuous-looking you'd think for a secret agent. Yet later in the field, they sometimes turned their feminine charms to advantage, while gathering information or talking their way out of awkward questioning.

Each agent had complete fluency in the French language, but came from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities. They included Noor Inayat Khan, the strikingly pretty daughter of a Sufi mystic, who worked as a radio operator in Paris until a Frenchwoman betrayed her to the Gestapo, and Peggy Knight, a 23-year-old shorthand typist, who had only a month's SOE training before she parachuted into enemy territory, earning an MBE and Croix de Guerre for leading Resistance raids.

Three women agents received the highest possible award for gallantry, the George Cross – Odette Sansom, Violette Bushell Szabo, and Noor Inayat Khan, the last two posthumously. Another brave beauty, Christine Granville, received the George Medal for her outstanding services and survived the war, only to be murdered by an unrequited lover years later. Virginia Hall, an intrepid one-legged American who served three years undercover, was the first woman to receive the Distinguished Service Cross.

Further chapters detail the adventures of other exceptional heroines, each one of whom had true-life espionage adventures far beyond any fictional James Bond movie. Binney’s book is one of the best accounts yet of female operatives in SOE, and is a moving testament to their courage. It includes a useful glossary for readers not familiar with World War Two terminology.

Gentler experiences are described in Brass Buttons and Silver Horseshoes: Stories From Canada’s British War Brides, by Linda Granfield, [McClelland & Stewart, 140 pages, photographs, $22.95.] The title refers to brass buttons on soldiers' uniforms and the silver paper horseshoes traditionally given to brides for good luck. After World War Two, 48,000 British "war brides" and 22,000 children immigrated to Canada to join their ex-military husbands. This collection of interviews recounts the typical experiences of 40 of them, told in their own words. Linda Granfield, who was an immigrant herself (from Boston, Mass.) shows warm understanding while eliciting these highly personal stories of young women who journeyed so far to settle in an unknown land.Averagely aged in the early 20's, most had never traveled away from home before, and only the vaguest idea of living conditions here, yet all seem to have adapted to enormous changes with cheerful courage. Their stories are a mixture of funny, romantic, and sad experiences, but all have something in common. They tell of falling in love with dashing young Canadian servicemen in whirlwind wartime love affairs, headlong weddings catered despite scarce food rationing, and being fearfully separated from new husbands suddenly sent off into combat.
At war's end, the Canadian government efficiently organized the women's transportation by ship across the Atlantic, many bringing young children. Once in Canada, their husbands seen in civilian clothes for the first time seemed to be almost strangers, and not all the reunions were successful. But for the most part, war brides settled into their new homes and made enduring marriages that lasted happily ever after. As well, the women themselves have stayed in touch through all the years since, and in 2000 they placed a memorial plaque to commemorate their arrival in Halifax 60 years before.
Interspersed among the personal memories are 1940's magazine advertisements, recruiting posters, ships' menus, and snapshot photos. They add graphic understanding of contemporary clothing, living conditions, and atmosphere at the time. By compiling this account, Linda Granfield provides a valuable record of the little-known contribution made by British war brides to building our post-war Canadian society.

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