There is no direct evidence linking my family to the town of Schorndorf, in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Schorn isn’t a very common surname or place name, so we may have some history there even though the town doesn’t figure in our family lore. But it’s not merely the possibility of a genealogical connection that inclines me to identify with Schorndorf and its people. It’s what happened there in December, 1688.
1688 was not a great year for Germany. It marked the beginning of the War of the League of Augsburg, which would grind on for almost a decade while France’s Louis XIV dicked around in Alsace and Ireland and the Netherlands and anywhere else he could cause trouble. Eventually the European powers got their act together, formed a Grand Alliance against Louis, and sent his troops back home to rest up for the War of the Spanish Succession. But in September of 1688, when the French army first crossed the Rhine at Strasbourg, the German army was off in Hungary, fighting the Turks, and Germany lay defenseless.
The French forces, anxious to capture as much territory as possible before the Germans came home, lost no time in besieging and conquering Philippsburg, then taking Mannheim and Frankenthal. The locals, after watching a few more towns being burnt to the ground, began to see the wisdom of capitulating to the French, and city after city surrendered to Louis XIV’s troops without a fight.
It’s hard to pin down the details of the events in Schorndorf. Most of the information I’ve found is in German, which, despite two years spent studying Anglo-Saxon at the graduate level, I can’t speak or read (I’m still paying off the loans, too). But with the help of Google’s translator feature, I have gleaned the following: The city of Stuttgart, noting the destruction of many of its neighbors, decided that appeasement was the prudent course of action. Then, in an admirable bit of creative thinking, Stuttgart’s leaders hit upon the idea of preserving their own city by giving the French a different one nearby—a little place called Schorndorf. (“To protect Stuttgart, it was decided that the celebrations Schorndorf, was feared by the it was no longer tenable, long, should be handed over to the French general,” Google’s translator explains in a garbled, charming robo-German.)
The authorities in Stuttgart, having resolved to save their own skins by sacrificing their friends down the road, sent a couple of envoys over to Schorndorf to explain the impending surrender, and arrange what they no doubt advertised as a peaceful transfer of power from German hands to French. Stuttgart’s decision-makers expected the residents of Schorndorf to do what good citizens have always done upon receiving such official reassurances: bury the silver and hide in the swamp. But the Schorndorfers defied those expectations.
Or rather, the women of Schorndorf did.
As legend and de.wikipedia have it, the town’s female population, upon hearing of the planned surrender, converged on Schorndorf’s town hall with pitchforks and other extemporized weapons, and took the envoys from Stuttgart hostage. (“Now the women gave in Schorndorf the tone. They left the Stuttgart negotiator for three nights and two days is not out of the building.”) The women, under the leadership of the mayor’s wife, told the French commander Mélac to piss off (my translation, not Google’s), and successfully delayed the town’s surrender until German troops arrived on the double from Hungary. For their determined resistance, the women of Schorndorf were hailed as heroines, “and went so into the history of the city.”
I love this story, not least because the heroic ladies of Schorndorf exemplify many of the same traits I associate with the women in my own family: a predilection for telling other people what to do, a general mistrust of authority, and an enthusiasm for participatory government that will not be denied. All of my female relatives, like the women of Schorndorf, have cool heads in times of crisis, and we react to the idea of surrender with outrage. (To the French? Are you fucking kidding me?) If the women in my family had a coat of arms, the motto on it would read “Oh, no you don’t, buster.” Thus I feel a certain kinship, real or imagined, with the women of Schorndorf.
Of course the virtues they embodied aren’t unique to my family, or to Germany. Such qualities are common to many people, and have universal appeal. We all understand the exasperation the Schorndorfers felt toward leaders who opted to protect some Germans while leaving others up the Rhine without a paddle. Anyone can sympathize with their disgust toward the cowardly local bureaucrats who went along with the plan.
What’s notable about this particular legend is that, while one presumes the men of Schorndorf weren’t thrilled about their town being given away as a bribe, it was their wives who acted to prevent it. It was the women who said, “Oh, no you don’t, buster.” Who shamed the authorities in Stuttgart for sacrificing their brethren, and made it clear that no one could take away the Schorndorfers’ right to defend themselves.
The perception of what counts as defense, of what is negotiable and what is expendable, can be different for men and women. I think this might have something to do with all the times through the ages when women have watched their menfolk march off to distant battlefields, only to have the battle turn up on their own doorsteps a few weeks or months later. With rare exceptions, the wars women have fought tend to be the ones their men have screwed up. Historically, we’re almost never invited to the big dance. We only get to join in when the afterparty comes to our house.
And at those times we do join in, with a will. We’ll even, as the women of Schorndorf proved, take the lead. History abounds with stories of women fighting, out of necessity, in immediate defense of their homes, families, and livelihoods. All admirable things to defend, and yet prescribed in important ways. Women have seldom been assigned to patrol borders or liberate oppressed peoples. You probably don’t picture us leading the charge out of a foxhole or picking off enemies with a sniper rifle. No; you picture us barricading doorways while frightened children huddle behind our skirts. Up until now women’s participation in warfare has been mostly limited to defending whatever we happened to be standing in front of when the invading army arrived.
So I’m pleased by the recent decision authorizing women in the U.S. armed forces to serve in combat, because it will give more of us a chance to do some fighting out there, where the men fight—which I suspect is a very different place, physically and mentally, from the homefront where women have traditionally made their stand. I think if more women have that experience, we might gain a better collective understanding of what we’re supposed to be fighting for.
Wars start at conference tables and are conducted in briefing rooms, and women are becoming more common in both places. But “international conflict” becomes war far from the conference table. War becomes reality in combat, where horrific things are done—usually by men, in the name of protecting or honoring the wives, sweethearts, and daughters back home.
I don’t want to seem ungrateful, gentlemen, but _these are our wars too_. If they really need to be fought, we should help fight them. And by “help” I don’t mean “stay at home and grow a victory garden.” I mean shooting people and blowing them up. Being shot at and blown up in return. The bad stuff. If our country really, truly needs to do that, then women should share the glory and—this is important—share the guilt, the very worst parts of warfare. If men can volunteer to go into battle, so should women. If men have to register for the draft, women should too. If our sons are coming home with PTSD and missing limbs—or not coming home at all—our daughters should be too.
It would be better if none of those things happened. But as long as they do, women shouldn’t be exempt from them. And the essential fairness of this concept is self-evident to most Americans, who support opening combat roles to women.
In years past, the objections against women in combat were phrased in the rosy terms of chivalry. Today, many of those who oppose the change (at least the ones bitching about it online) claim to have more pragmatic reasons. They argue that women are smaller and weaker than men, and therefore useless if a 240-pound Marine gets wounded and needs to be carried off the field of battle. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read about that giant, hapless, hypothetical Marine, lying there bleeding to death while his female comrades try and fail (shrieking hysterically, one assumes) to drag him to safety.
The use of this I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up battle scenario as an argument against women in combat perplexes me. I mean, if you’re a combat soldier, shouldn’t you be doing your best not to get shot in the first place? Isn’t that a fairly high priority for anyone in combat? That’s certainly what I’d be thinking about in combat. And if I was wounded, I wouldn’t expect my safe evacuation from the scene to be my comrades’ first priority. I’d expect them to be fulfilling the mission while also trying not to get shot.
Not to make light of the “leave no man (sic) behind” ethic, but it’s weird to hear these (purportedly, in their online profiles) big tough soldiers suddenly whining “Carry me!” like cranky toddlers (although, as a medic friend once pointed out, you can’t spell “infantry” without “infant”). As a soldier, your job, which you’ve volunteered for and been trained to do, is to go into hostile territory under enemy fire. “But what if I get hurt?” doesn’t seem like the kind of question you should be asking at this stage in your career.
A woman defending her children on her doorstep doesn’t ask that kind of question. If she gets wounded, no one is going to rescue her, and she knows it. Perhaps that’s why the women of Schorndorf showed some backbone when the men around them couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stand up. Fighting on your own doorstep gives you a different perspective about these things.
Then too, “average” strength and weakness are irrelevant as long as all combat troops have to pass the same physical tests, regardless of gender. You can find ample video evidence of this online; plenty of women are capable of carrying larger men—a fact that, I was fascinated to learn, actively traumatizes some men. (I owe a debt of gratitude to whoever it was on Twitter that introduced me to the concept of a “weenie-shrinker moment.”) Knowing that women can pick men up bodily seems to upset some men almost as much as the fear that women might be unable to do so when required.
It’s called a paradigm shift, guys. Get over it. We’re sorry if admitting us to the big Boys’ Club of war means it won’t be as much fun for you anymore. But that’s the point, isn’t it? War isn’t supposed to be fun. And maybe women’s presence in combat will do something to shake up the comfortable rhythms of slaughter that men have settled into over the centuries. Maybe it will make both genders see combat in a different light than we’re used to. And then maybe we’ll all see less of it.