Frontline feminism

A postscript to the recent debate about women in the front line.

By Lyle Dunne

I had a rare visit to the cinema last week. I went to see a sort-of-spy movie with Helen Mirren – I always enjoy her performances, even though I suspect we’d see eye to eye on few issues. This one’s called The Debt, and deals with a Mossad mission to East Germany in the 1960s to capture a Nazi war criminal, modeled loosely on Klaus Barbie.  

(Oh yes – SPOILER ALERT! If you’re inclined to see it – which I’d broadly recommend if you’re a fan of Helen Mirren, or cinema for adults — as distinct from Adult Cinema — run out now and do so, then come back and read on.)


There, that’s better. Enjoyed that, didn’t you? Apart from the gruesome bits, of course, but then that’s part of the experience these days.

For those who’ve decided to skip the practical, the Mossad raid features a team of three, Rachel, Stephan and David, played by Jessica Chastain, Martin Csokas, and our own Sam Worthington – then in the 1990s by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciaran Hinds.

Sam, I thought, modeled his Mossad agent on the role played by fellow-Aussie Eric Bana in Munich: muscles, crew-cut and lots of brooding.  Hardly any Aussie accent. Both were totally mission-focussed. (Funny how Mossad agents in cinema seem much more serious and committed than MI5 or CIA operatives. OK, their back-story discourages levity. Or could it be something about Hollywood sympathies?)

Without giving away the whole story, it turns on the dilemma of living with a lie for thirty years, focussing largely on the characters in the 90s, with the high drama told in retrospect. But the part that struck me was the mission itself, and the immediate lead-up.

It transpires that the “Butcher of Buchenwald” is practising as a gynaecologist in East Berlin, apparently specializing in fertility problems. To confirm his identity, and extract the target, Rachel has to submit to no fewer than three gynaecological examinations from a former practitioner of recreational human vivisection, which as you can imagine makes her a bit jittery.

So she decides a bit of a fling with David, with whom she’s been exchanging smouldering glances (and who, for good measure, is pretending to be her loving husband), would be the thing – but, apparently out of fear for jeopardizing the mission, he spurns her advances, so she goes out to play on the piano, and later the bed, with the more more-worldly Stephan.

The kidnap goes smoothly enough – though the image of Rachel’s transition from gynaecological examinee to kidnapper via a leg-headlock is I fear destined to stay with me. But when it comes to the delivery of the victim, things go amiss. The plan is that a West German train will make an unscheduled stop in an East Berlin station (trains from the West apparently did travel through the East, but were not allowed to stop) and the three agents will sneak the drugged Nazi aboard. But the war criminal wakes up early, creating a disturbance – and the resourceful Rachel has to distract the guards. At this point, Stephan and David should cut their losses, and flee with their prize. But David, ironically given his refusal to sleep with Rachel the previous night, objects, and refuses to depart without her – with a series of complex and disastrous consequences, which needn’t concern us. (I said I wasn’t going to give away the whole story – go on Cheap Tuesday, or wait for the DVD!)

Now this is interesting in the context of the recent debate about women in the front line, not least because the Israelis are among the few armies who’ve tried it, and by all reports abandoned the idea, for precisely this kind of reason. Admittedly this isn’t a standard military exercise, but it does give us a sense of the kind of emotional pressure created when a mixed group are isolated behind enemy lines — and triangular relationships emerge. It’s clear that this is not conducive to rational decision-making in the field.

OK this is only a work of fiction: it doesn’t provide any data about the incidence of these sorts of problems.

But it does illustrate the effect on the kind of split-second decision-making required in modern frontline warfare of the sort that Australian troops are likely to become involved in (i.e. small-scale rapid-movement actions rather than set-piece battles), of even emotional attachments, let alone active sexual relationships.

Problems of sex in wartime are not new. We know the story of Uriah the Hittite, whom King David had placed unprotected in the front line to be killed because the King wanted his wife. Rape in war is an age-old shame, and I’m sure the problems of sexual tensions among combatants go back to Alexander and beyond. But it seems to me we needn’t add to them.

It is possible to convince oneself that sexual problems such as we have seen on navy vessels, and among defence force cadets, are aberrations, and not the natural consequence of putting young men and women into intimate contact in high-pressure environments.

It’s possible to claim that these problems are the result of inadequate socialization, of the unreconstructed male psyche. To an extent this may even be true. We live in a society which is saturated with sexual imagery, with the subtext that gratification on demand is everyone’s right.

To go from there to the view that we can fix this by social engineering, however, requires a peculiar type of optimism. And it’s getting harder to convince oneself that such behaviour is an aberration – at least in the statistical sense. This morning, after I wrote the above, the local Canberra ABC news reported

Two weeks ago a report by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner found 74 per cent of female cadets had been sexually harassed at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. (My emphasis.)

But maybe it’s not about fixing the problem. If you’re interested in recruiting people to a viewpoint or an organisation, an insoluble problem may be the best kind.

Or maybe asserting that women have a right to participate in every aspect of society is all that matters, and implementing this right – for ideological or political reasons – is therefore an obligation to Womankind, regardless of the harm it may do to actual women.

If so, call me old-fashioned, but this seems a curious notion of women’s rights.

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