Conflict photographer Lynsey Addario has seen a hell of a lot of combat over the past twenty years. She patrolled Afghanistan's Helmand Province with the Marines, accompanied the Army on night raids in Baghdad, took artillery fire with rebel fighters in Libya, and has taken photos in countless other wars and humanitarian disasters around the world.
Along the way, Addario captured images of plenty of women serving with pride in uniform, not only in the U.S. armed forces, but also on the battlefields of Syria, Colombia, South Sudan and Israel. Her photographs are the subject of a new article in the November 2019 special issue of National Geographic, “Women: A Century of Change,” the magazine's first-ever edition written and photographed exclusively by women.
The photos showcase the wide range of goals and ideals for which these women took up arms. Addario's work includes captivating vignettes of a seasoned guerrilla fighter in the jungles of Colombia; a team of Israeli military police patrolling the streets of Jerusalem; and a unit of Kurdish women guarding ISIS refugees in Syria. Some fight to prove themselves, others seek to ignite social change in their home country, and others do it to liberate other women from the grip of ISIS.
Addario visited several active war zones for the piece, but she found herself shaken by something much closer to home: the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina.
Addario discussed her visit to boot camp and her other travels in an interview with Task & Purpose, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Task & Purpose: Out of all the programs in the U.S. military, what made you choose to cover Marine Corps boot camp?
Lynsey Addario: Some of the toughest battles I've been in were with the Marines, and in 2009 and 2010 I was with the Female Engagement Teams with the Marines. so I wanted to sort of work backwards and and see what that initial recruit-to-Marine process was like.
What was it like going backwards? Did you see what you expected to see?
I think for any journalist embedding with the military, there is an incredible sense of discipline and following orders. There's a real change from walking in as a recruit and then getting screamed at all the time as the routine is ingrained and embedded into their minds and their bodies.
That was pretty harsh. I understand why it's done intellectually, but it was tough to be around so much screaming all the time. But I guess it's a necessary part if you want to create that level of respect for your seniors and also to create that sense of discipline.
You've been in so many war zones and humanitarian disasters, but being in boot camp with all the shouting was still enough to rattle you a little bit.
Yeah, it was surprising. We journalists don't have a chain of command in the field. Of course, like the military, you know, we follow the rules, but when we're out on our own covering a war there's no one there to tell us what to do. So it was a very different for me. I've never been in that setting where they're being groomed to become Marines.
I was really blown away by that quote you had from the commander of female recruits at Parris Island. “Women learn weakness, we can also unlearn it.” That really struck me because I think the phrase, “pain is weakness leaving the body” gets used a lot in the Marines, What was it like hearing that quote?
Well, I think the point was when you empower women and you make women feel like they can do anything, automatically, they feel like they can do anything. But when you systematically say women aren't strong enough to be in the Marines, or women can't keep up or, you know, put them in a different category, then you start to believe that.
That's relevant for the Marines, but it's relevant in many arenas. If you go into something with that being ingrained in your head, like 'you won't be able to do this or maybe you're lesser than your male comrades or colleagues,' then it's going to be harder to overcome that.
Every time I walked into an embed over the years, there was no hiding that face a male soldier makes when he looks at me and is like, “Oh, shit, it's a woman, she's going to slow us down, like, she's not going to be strong enough. She's not gonna be able to keep up with us when the bullets are flying, she's going to cry.”
They don't have to say it, but there's a look. Like in the Korengal Valley, when we embedded with the 173rd [Airborne] for almost two months for the New York Times Magazine, initially the public affairs officer was like, “eh it's not really a place that's fit for women.” And we were like, “Well, why not?”
Eventually a colonel let us go and we spent two months there and we kept up. I think the important thing is you can be told one thing, but you can show another.
A lot of the discussion about ground combat units in the U.S. opening up to women inevitably brings up worries about how women in combat units might affect the performance or camaraderie of the unit. Do you have any thoughts on that, given the diversity of the units you embedded with?
Look, it's not really for me to say because I can't see what happens, you know, throughout, because as a journalist I go in for a very short period of time. I've had a Marine public affairs officer say, “Look, we conducted a years-long study looking at the effect that women would have on combat, and we saw that they would make us a less effective fighting force in the infantry.”
So it's not for me to say, but certainly they have their reasoning. My feeling in any sort of arena is, if someone is fit to do something, male or female, the position should be open to them.
Despite this Nat Geo article being about how women are on the battlefield more than ever, there weren't any photos of women actually fighting in combat.
That's obviously something I fought for really hard, because I personally have spent time on the battlefield and I kept getting told that women were fighting at the front and they were some of the toughest fighters. For example, the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) is very public about how their women are out there everywhere. I had a lot of correspondence with the IDF and I dedicated a week to covering whatever they would show me. I said “I'm fine to risk my life, you can send me to the toughest places,” and they only would show me training.
So that was a real source of tension. It was basically a matter of access. The YPG women, the women fighting ISIS…most of what I was given access to, and only because I pushed extraordinarily hard to get the access, was to women searching all the women coming out , standing guard on the perimeter, but not in battle.
And I tried for four days on the front line, like literally being told to go to this place or to go to this post and that post and being really given the run-around for days. That was something that was super frustrating for me. I don't know what the takeaway is, is the takeaway that women really aren't fighting as much as men, or aren't fighting much more than they used to be? Maybe this is a gradual progression? I don't know, because it was very difficult to get access to that element of the story.
Wow, that sounds incredibly frustrating. If you had talked to the public affairs people or other officials and asked to embed with a male unit fighting, do you think they would have been more receptive of it?
Yeah, yeah, I think so. It was like on the forefront of my mind the entire story and the whole time I was in Israel and Syria, I was trying to get access to women actually actively fighting. I mean, one of the main reasons for even including Israel is because historically they were one of the first to incorporate women in the military. And they actually gave me the worst access. They didn't show me anything. It was basically just training and an earthquake recovery drill, which was really frustrating.
What to you would gender equality look like, in the U.S. military or maybe more broadly in other militaries?
I think that when you talk about gender equality in the military, it's basically having those positions be open and then seeing who has the ability to fulfill them. But you know, I'm not in the military, and I'm not an expert on the military. I have spent a lot of time with the military. But that's not really for me to talk about or speculate or anything.
For more of Addario's work, visit National Geographic