Iraqi Women's Engagement
Credit: Sgt. Ben Eberle/Wikimedia Commons

Sex and gender decide our fate more than some like to admit. Men and money make the world go ‘round, after all, and grown men are mostly responsible for society’s most critical decisions surrounding war and peace. Children don’t vote, and women often don’t have a voice.

The latest military rout taking place in northern Syria is only the most recent installment of war’s practice of disappearing the dead. Not because the killed are invisible, but because they are unseen. There are many victims in these conflicts, but the ones who suffer most and longest always seem to be the women and children.

ISIS remains a particularly vile scourge to both moms and kids.

Consider the Yazidi women who were raped, tortured, kidnapped and killed by Islamist fighters not long ago. Or the countless kids who were maimed in ISIS attacks and left orphans on the field of battle. Or all the noncombatants terrorized in the savage streets. Women and children are the ones whom we see the least—and who reflect war’s inhumanity the most. ISIS may no longer have territory or a putative leader, but it continues to exist, and its ideology is not dead. Ask a grieving mother or orphaned child.

These suffering individuals are shuttled from refugee camp to detention camp, as when Saddam Hussein evilly used foreign women and children as human shields to surround his troop locations—pawns in a bloody chess game. ISIS’ urban guerrilla fighters now hide among civilians in hospitals and hovels. It’s always the women and children, mostly unarmed, regularly unfed, who take the brunt of warfare, who suffer loss of life and who inherit a failed future—if any future at all.

When a ship goes down, we are versed in the practice that women and children should be saved first, that a captain stays until the end and goes down with his ship. But somewhere along the line between sailing ship and ship of state, priorities changed. Kids and their mothers, once valued for procreation, legacy and honor, became merely tactical tools. In this dishonorably warring world, women are chattel and children uncherished.

Some of the world’s most abominable atrocities against humanity are committed in Syria. The Turkish invasion only made this grim situation worse. As always, the horror has visited women and children disproportionately. From Assad’s chemical attacks to Putin’s hospital bombings, they have turned the vulnerable into victims twice over.

Now and again, we see women and children fighting either for their defense or liberation, taking up arms because they are forced to by overwhelming men or circumstance, so that they have some agency over their lives, so that they can die for a cause or with dignity. Abandoned Kurdish women fight because no one else would fight for them or with them. They have learned and relearned this lethal lesson. So, the women fight, their long hair or braids dangling from their headscarves as they bear arms with covered heads. The children, too, do what they can and endure what they must.

If a woman or child is injured or caught in battle by Turkish-aligned militias, as was recently reported, they are enslaved, tortured or worse. Çiçek Kobane was hauled off the field of battle by bragging men who called her a pig and sought to “slaughter” her. Kobane’s captors joked they would slit her throat and watch her bleed, but not before taking her last bit of dignity as the men’s faces first promised the violence of rape.

Atrocities know no ideological boundaries or national purity. America committed them in Vietnam and at Abu Ghraib. Here’s the difference: The United States punished the perpetrators and recognized the incivility of the violent actions against innocent civilians. America is not perfect, but it tries to be good.

This week I was again reminded of war’s barbarity. I’ve seen my fair share of it over the years in the field. But though I am safely ensconced in my comfortable American home, far from the action and free from the trauma, I am not divorced from the lesson. In fact, this week’s reminder came from home.

My son Eon, 17, reacted to news reports calling the al Baghdadi operation and death “successful.”

He noted that 11 children were safe and saved in the raid. The ISIS terrorist’s two wives and three children died, however, when he detonated an explosive vest in a tunnel, while running from American Special Forces troops, robots and dogs. Eon turned to me and said, “Dad, it’s good they got him, but three kids died—that’s not ‘successful.’”

The last cowardly act of this menace was not only to commit suicide, but to take his family with him. The women and children. After all, it’s a man’s world.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).