Watching the US Senate Armed Forces Committee wrestle with the issue of rape and sexual abuse in the military opens a whole range of related issues concerning sex and war that will likely not be addressed in the Senate.
First, there’s the world of militant Islam, against whom for over a decade our most war-friendly leaders have put us on a war footing. For many, Islam itself has become the new boogie man to replace the communism of the Cold War era. One critical factor in this war is how the Islamic world sees the treatment of women.
I first encountered this difference when as a young man I was traveling in Turkey. I was amazed at the young American women travelers who wanted to hook up with me and even wanted to share a room. Unfortunately, I soon realized it was not my prowess they were interested in. They sought protection from the incessant fondling and groping that Turkish men felt entitled to with young American females. These women clearly feared the possibility of rape.
I concluded, perhaps rashly, that Muslim men tend to take what they see as their male, masculine rights seriously and see liberated western women as a flagrant provocation.
The New York Times recently reported cases of public rapes in Rio de Janeiro. There have been similar rapes (some that ended in murder) in India and elsewhere with huge street protests in India. The point of The Times article was the irony that such sexually aggressive male behavior was occurring in Brazilian society as that nation approached first-world status. Brazil is planning to host the 2016 Summer Olympics and it recently elected a woman, Dilma Rousseff, as president.
“We’re living a schizophrenic situation, in which important advances have been made in women reaching positions of influence in our society,” Rogeria Peixinho, from the Brazilian Womens Network, told The Times. “At the same time, the situation for many women who are poor remains atrocious.”
As I see it, a similar “schizophrenic situation” exists within the US military. Women are advancing in the military ranks at an unprecedented rate and they recently were legally accepted in combat roles. The top brass have no problem welcoming women into the ranks of the military since in a volunteer military women are essential.
The problem is at the lower levels, on what the military likes to call “the granular level” where individual male and female soldiers engage with each other as comrades and peers. Many red-blooded young male soldiers may not have gotten the memo that women are to be treated as equals. Or they may have concluded anti-rape rhetoric was only for PR and did not apply to them. The sorry track record of commanders dismissing indictments and convictions would seem to reinforce this view.
Our soldiers are now propagandized to see themselves as “warriors.” Many male soldiers have experienced combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, many with multiple deployments. By reputation and through the demonization process of war, our warriors learn how tough their Islamic enemy is and that these Muslims warriors tend to separate themselves from their women and often treat their women quite harshly.
This is the world our warrior/soldiers fight in. Their mission may even include the idea, expressed by some very conservative commentators, that we are fighting to liberate oppressed women in Muslim lands. Military life is full of contradictions, and one of them is that on the deeper, hyper-masculine, atavistic level of warfare there’s tremendous pressure to dismiss and dominate the softer qualities of women.
It’s also interesting to raise the dirty little secret of warfare: prostitution. I confess to having experience with prostitution in Vietnam, where it was epidemic in scale. Young male soldiers amounted to a huge market with dollars burning holes in their pockets, and lovely young Vietnamese women were the product. It’s a rarely mentioned fact of the Vietnam War that the Fourth Infantry Division managed a collection of tin-shack bordello-bars just outside the camp gate on the outskirts of Pleiku. Too many American fighting men were getting the clap. So what they now call the Fourth ID got into the whoring business. Other units did the same.
Filmmaker David Goodman is making a documentary on the Military and Prostitution. I was his cameraman during a two-week trip to Baghdad in 2004. It became clear, there, that in today’s Muslim war zones things are very different. While prostitution was everywhere in Vietnam, it has been virtually non-existent for US troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.
We interviewed families living as squatters in bombed out buildings. David waited until the end of the interview to ask the family patriarch what they would do if a young girl “sold herself” for money. I watched the interviewees through the viewfinder, and no one skipped even a beat before he said in Arabic: “We would kill her.”
What this all suggests is that the sexual life of a US soldier/warrior today on a distant deployment in the Muslim world is more bottled up and repressed than in other times or places. To make things even more explosive, add to the mix how rape has become a weapon of power in war zones like Bosnia and Darfur. Rape and war go hand in hand. And some men feel a need to project their masculine exceptionalism onto the closest woman, as in the famous Clint Eastwood line: He was a legend in his own mind.
So there’s a contradiction afoot, what the Brazilian women’s rights worker called a “schizophrenic situation.” While women may be flying helicopters in combat and women may be three-star generals and secretaries of state, for the thousands of ordinary young women on the granular level of day-to-day military life, it must be confusing who’s the greater threat, our much demonized enemies or the sexual predators in the ranks.
The main mission of any military is to kill and destroy things, and males are better suited for killing and destroying things than the female, who is muscularly weaker and designed by The Great Mystery for birthing and nurturing. I know I may be on thin cultural ice here, but at some point this has to be recognized. This does not mean war is always a completely masculine enterprise. Women are quite capable of killing and destroying, especially in a modern hi-tech battlefield soon to feature more sophisticated drones and robotics. But the fact is war at its most brutish extreme is a masculine enterprise.
If this is true, there are real questions whether the Senate Armed Forces Committee or anyone else in government is willing or able to change the status quo in which hyper-masculinity has been a get-out-of-jail-free card. The issue is 26,000 reported sexual assaults or rapes last year, an increase of 7000 over the previous year. One percent of those reported cases resulted in court martial conviction. It’s estimated the 26,000 figure is only 15 percent of the total assault cases in the military. In some cases, like Kori Cloca’s, a woman can be threatened with a court martial of her own (for lying or some other charge) if she pursues a case.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand from New York and the other women on the committee are rightfully fired up. Gillibrand is proposing legislation that would shift the decision-making about rape and sexual abuse charges from the chain of command to more neutral military prosecutors. Also, commanders would not be allowed, as they are now, to overrule and veto an indictment or conviction, as was the case for ace pilot Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, convicted of sexually assaulting a woman, a conviction then simply tossed out by a three star general.
Coming off two wars, two things are vitally important to the US military command:
One, it does not want to give up any of its secrecy, which amounts to a huge reservoir of information, some of it vitally important to be kept secret for operational reasons, and most of it simply to avoid sharing with the American public embarrassing or criminal activities. And, two, it does not want to give up any power; that is, it won’t voluntarily allow its precious chain-of-command, the backbone of any military, to be broken up or diluted.
The problem is in order to effectively clean up the rape issue in the military these two areas can no longer be considered sacred cows to be avoided. The Constitution puts civilians in control of the military, and civilian leaders need to step up and get tough.
Senator Gillibrand has the right idea. Her challenge attacks one of the prime hurdles to justice in the US legal system: selective enforcement. It’s a continuum with demonization on one end and mitigation on the other. When it comes to the “crime” of whistleblowing, for example, the Obama administration is heavily working the demonization end of the continuum and giving out few breaks. Bradley Manning is facing life in prison — while “Scooter” Libby got a pardon. The same is true with rape and sexual aggression in the military. Some get the breaks while others get the shaft.
The solution is simple: Men who rape and sexually abuse women in the military should be quickly prosecuted and put away for a long time. No ifs, ands or buts. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an officer, a flying ace or a Seal Team Six hero, you sexually assault a woman in uniform you go to jail.
The question hovering over the Senate Armed Services Committee is this: In an institution that relies so heavily on the masculine aggressive instinct — what arguably drives a man to sexually dominate a female (or a male for that matter) — is a tough solution even possible? Or are we, instead, doomed to the usual cover-up and PR sophistry?
When the dust settles, will women be forced to adjust to sexual predator behavior as an unfortunate reality, a form of collateral damage, in an increasingly separatist warrior military culture?
JOHN GRANT is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, a new independent, collectively-owned, journalist-run, reader-supported online alternative newspaper.