The Spoils of War: Sexual Entitlement

The lack of accountability of criminal behavior is a grotesque stain on human behavior and history. Many who follow history, either as scholars or informed individuals, know that until the second half of the 20th century, history was written by the victors and about the celebrated victorious, those anointed by the few and the very wealthy and often at the expense of truth and justice. History was mostly written at the expense of ordinary women and men.

Fort Hood in Texas has a big problem (“A Year of Heartbreak and Bloodshed at Fort Hood,” New York Times, September 9, 2020). Crime on the army base is rampant and sexual harassment and sex crimes follow upon the heels of that harassment. Two recent deaths at Fort Hood have all the earmarks of sex crimes. Soldiers have also disappeared from Fort Hood.

The Fort Hood deaths reminded some mental health experts of a cluster of violent behavior at Fort Carson in Colorado more than a decade ago. Those events show just how elusive answers can be in trying to identify the root causes of death and violence in the military.

The study (of Fort Carson), released in 2009, found that a number of personal, environmental and military-unit issues may have played a role in the violence, including soldiers’ previous criminal behavior, drug and alcohol abuse and combat exposure and intensity. That combination ‘may have increased the risk for violent behavior’ in some of the soldiers, the study concluded.

First an observation about how men and women in the military are viewed in terms of their targeting for sexual harassment, attacks, and worse. The primary objective of the military is victory in war. Victory in war means killing the enemy. It’s that simple. For the only superpower left standing with over 700 military bases around the world and involvement in endless wars, teaching and learning about war has the consequence of dehumanizing the declared enemy and training to kill that enemy. Teaching and learning about war often dismisses practicing normal moral guidelines about the worth of the individual. Since the US-led Global War on Terrorism began in 2001, the Costs of War Project (Brown University) tags the price of those wars at $6.4 trillion with over 800,000 people killed and 37 million people in eight countries driven from their homes. Isn’t it fitting that during the 1950s, Ronald Reagan, as TV mouthpiece for General Electric, producer of both home appliances and war goods, mouthed the words “Progress is our most important product.”

Killing in war and tormenting people in the military who don’t fit into the military’s definition of soldiering are both acts not so very far apart. Since the attacks of September 2001, the military has enjoyed a kind of status in the US not known since World War II. Although not daily news anymore, the drumbeat of war created a sense in the US that anything the US does militarily is acceptable and the military has been allowed to police its own regarding how men and women in its ranks  behave and are treated. It’s very similar to how police are treated and judged who fire their weapons and report, as a defense, that they felt threatened. The latter, at least until the spate of police murders of unarmed people of color, was generally accepted by the public.

The targeting of women and men for sexual harassment in the military has led to the growth of sexual assaults and worse, and the continued tradition within the system of military “justice” allows for judging its own wrongdoers from within the system with no external oversight. A footnote needs to be considered that most people in the military do not perpetrate violent acts against their fellow soldiers. But it’s also not the case of a few rotten apples because sexual harassment is widespread.

In terms of sex crimes, the cliché that military justice is to justice, as military music is to music, holds true.

I underwent military training at a base in Georgia, Fort Gordon, that had a contingent of the Women’s Army Corps on that base. My recollections of that period, during the Vietnam War era, were that the women on base were generally demeaned in harsh, inappropriate sexual terms.

On one of my basic training company’s first weekend leaves, a group of my fellow soldiers and I rented a van and we were driven across the border to South Carolina to a motel where each soldier in turn went into an adjoining room for sex with a sex worker. Since I thought we were leaving the base and getting away from the weight of military training, I naively went along with my fellows and refrained from taking part in the behavior in the adjoining motel room. As a footnote to our trip across the border, each soldier who entered the adjoining room developed a sexually transmitted disease after returning to the base and its treatment required medical intervention. Sex work has always been a reality around military bases and in war zones. Some have traditionally seen it as part of the rest and relaxation equation in war.

War has always involved the spoils of war that often includes predatory sexual behavior. Much legend about war involves romantic relationships that mirror life outside of war, and that happens, but predatory behavior has always accompanied war and some have condoned that behavior among some soldiers and top military brass. Bases, both inside and outside of theaters of war, have provided soldiers with access to sex, with much of that availability given a nod by military brass. The vulnerable among members of the military have sometimes been viewed as targets of predatory sexual behavior and an extension of military training and the deserved spoils of war in a male-dominated patriarchal universe. The reality of that behavior on the ground is happening in places like Fort Hood.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).