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Sexual Domination in Uniform

An American Value

by LINDA BURNHAM

The Abu Ghraib portraits of sexual humiliation and submission have exposed the unbelievably tangled strands of racism, misogyny, homophobia, national arrogance and hyper-masculinity that characterize the US military. Militarized sexual domination is neither "contrary to American values" nor simply the work of a few "bad apples." It is, rather, a daily practice.

The "bad apples" defense is both unspeakably inadequate and completely disingenuous. While narrowing the scope of inquiry to individual transgression may provide a convenient protective shield for the military, it also deflects attention away from very troubling realities. The photos of Abu Ghraib reveal as much about our nation as they do about the soldiers of the 372nd Military Police Company.

As our president made clear, the intent of the invasion and occupation of Iraq was to bring the Iraqi opposition to its knees. Why then the surprise that soldiers would be thrilled to comply so literally? The scenario in which an Iraqi man kneels with the penis of another in or near his mouth shocked us all. But our leaders’ call for the naked humiliation of Arabs and Muslims was not so muted that only a few stray soldiers heard.

Iraqi prisoners made to wear women’s underwear. Those who battled for women’s equal right to serve should take heed. Degradation and weakness are still equated with the female in this man’s army.

Much has been made of the role of Private Lynndie England, the thumbs-up girl of prisoner abuse. Her culpability seems manifest and, back on home turf, England will have to fight for her soul the best way she knows how. But England is the second cover girl for the Iraq installment of the US military’s sexual integration story. Jessica Lynch was the first. Two fresh-faced, working-class, small-town girls eager to escape the limitations of location and station. Escape they did, into the welcoming arms of an institution that used one to rally the nation, spinning a narrative of the endangered but plucky female, rescued from the dark barbarian hordes. It will use the other as sacrifice to assuage the anxieties of a troubled nation. In her role as dominatrix over Iraqi men England exposed the sexualization of national conquest. As a participant in the militarized construction of the masculine she inaugurated a brand new, frightening archetype: dominant-nation female as joyful agent of sexual, national, racial and religious humiliation. How’s that for liberation?

Lynndie England aside, the scenes at Abu Ghraib depict sexual domination as a feature of military hyper-masculinity. The horrific Denver Post revelations of the sexual assault and rape of multitudes of servicewomen are a further indication that sexual domination in uniform is hardly a rarity. And our military is built upon the daily subjugation of the sexual lives of thousands upon thousands of women to the sexual appetites of servicemen overseas. Subordinating the national interests of countries the world over to the geo-political interests of the US seemingly requires the sexual sacrifice of some portion of these nations’ women — poor women, always.

Military prostitution is viewed as rest and relaxation, entertainment for the troops. While the purported "goal" of the sexual humiliation of Abu Ghraib prisoners was to extract vital information, the photos tell a more twisted story. The cheery faces tell us that dramatizing the metaphoric rape of the Iraqi nation by acting out the sexual domination of Iraqi men was big fun. Casting themselves as directors and actors in the drama of sexual humiliation, the prison guards clearly believed that they could do whatever they wished, and thoroughly enjoy themselves in the process. Was it un-American for them to think so? Not when the core message of their commander-in-chief to the Iraqi people has been, "You will bow down to our capacity to dominate, and we will exercise that capacity despite global opposition."

The struggle over assigning culpability has taken on the character of a high-stakes political tango. That struggle will intensify. Although there’s no question but that everyone responsible, from the immediate perpetrators on up, must be held to account, culpability runs far deeper.

It may be hard to get up in the morning and face this fact, but we are, collectively, as guilty as hell. We elect representatives who feed the military monster. We honor sadistic hyper-masculinity, awarding those who portray it best with governorships (e.g. Arnold Schwarzenneger). We devote vast resources to bondage and discipline in our criminal justice system. And we lie to ourselves unceasingly. The world is weary of, and profoundly angered by, America’s tattered claim of innocence.

The soldiers at Abu Ghraib pulled back the curtain on their perverse enactments so that we may see who we are. Do we have the courage to look? Do we have the will to change?

LINDA BURNHAM is the executive director of the Women of Color Resource Center in Oakland, CA.