How Sexual Assaults are Treated in the Military

A well-researched article in the New York Times outlines the issue of sexual assaults in the US military, the aftermath of those assaults, and what the military, the Veterans Administration, and independent outside agencies are, or aren’t doing about how sexual assaults are treated.

‘A Poison in the System’: The Epidemic of Military Sexual Assault” (August 3, 2021) is comprehensive in its coverage of the issues related to sexual assault in the military, but it is missing the big questions that need to be raised about women, who make up the vast majority of sexual assault cases in the military, and how they are treated by the military following an assault(s), how the chain of military command treats sexual assault, and how the VA deals with veterans who have been victims of assault. Not surprising within the Times article is the revelation that some victims of sexual assault have been assaulted again, that both enlisted men, officers, and commanders are perpetrators of sexual assault, and that women, who have been assaulted and brutalized, can often expect to be brutalized and traumatized again following the actual assault by the system of rules and adjudication of their claims within the military and the VA.

In May 2019, the New York Times reported that the Defense Department noted a 50% increase in sexual assaults against women over two years.

The big question about the sexual assault of women in the military that reportedly affects one in four members, and former members of the military, is why would anyone expect anything different in a system and organization whose mission it is to be prepared for aggressive and violent behavior and carry out that behavior without question. Machismo has long been a value of military training and among members of the military. That value is as old, in fact much older than Homer’s fictional account of the siege of Troy in the Iliad. Since September 11, 2001, all questions about the manner in which the military is viewed in the US have moved to the political right. The US was faced with a supposed existential threat to its existence, so anything the military did after September 2001 was for the benefit of all and anyone who criticizes their mission and the orders of the command structure is a traitor of sorts. All of this affects sexual assault in the military. The latter takes on special importance, or perhaps an ironic twist, as Afghanistan falls to the Taliban. With the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, how well I recall the death threats that met our protest of that war in yet another kind of victimization, although we kept on protesting. The tens of thousands of lives lost in that war and the trillions of dollars pissed away are yet additional examples of how militarism victimizes all those who it touches, although knowing soldiers abuse their fellow soldiers leaves no room for sympathy of any kind for the perpetrators of abuse.

With the eradication of the Vietnam Syndrome through Ronald Reagan’s low-intensity warfare in Central America, and George H. W. Bush’s military incursion into Kuwait and Iraq in the first Gulf War, almost all reticence about war and the preparations for war mostly vanished. The syndrome lasted less than a decade and the citizenry was soon again ready to support wars and the military, and the military was ready once again to fight. The popularity of the military is so high now, about 89%, that countering anything about the military and its operation is almost verboten. At one point following September 2001, when special waivers were issued to recruit for the military, most turned a blind eye. That women who entered the military for a number of reasons, including the perception of serving in a time of need makes sense. Others viewed the military as a means to better themselves through the acquisition of skills and the perceived security they believed the military provides.

This is not a criticism of any person’s membership in the military. Given the societal influences and the attacks of September 2001, it’s easy to see why many would join the military, including women. However, what many women didn’t bargain for was being sexually assaulted as part of their military experience, sometimes repeatedly assaulted, having the command structure in the military often ignore or worsen their plight, and finally have the VA or their discharge status expose them to further victimization and abandonment. Try to imagine the further victimization of  women assaulted in the military if they are discharged on less-than-fully honorable grounds.

When I read the Times account of he experiences of US Marine veterans who were subjected to sexual assault, I recalled the words of a member of a local peace group, a former marine, who made the observation that the marines trained recruits to react to commands unquesitoningly. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of the purpose of the marines, because most soldiers don’t commit sexual abuse, but when unquestioned aggressive behavior becomes a primary objective of training in elite branches of the military, fellow service members are sometimes seen as sex objects to be used.

Here are the words of the late singer/songwriter Phil Ochs in “Cops of the World:”

Best get down on your knees…
We’re hairy and horny and ready to shack…
We don’t care if you’re yellow or black…
Just take off your clothes and lie down on your back.

My experience during basic and advanced training in the military was on a base in Georgia, Fort Gordon, that was also the home to a contingent of members of the Women’s Army Corps. Women on that base were sometimes seen as castoffs from the larger society and of lesser value as human beings. Once that objectification and stereotyping begins, it’s not difficult to see the kinds of consequences that could be in store for women in the military, including sexual assault.

The movie Full Metal Jacket (1987) is the fictionalized, but well-researched account that portrays how women were treated by some members of the military in Vietnam in regard to sexual uses. The scene where soldiers barter for sexual favors from Vietnamese women is quite telling. At the other end of the spectrum of behavior of some troops in Vietnam were the hundreds of massacres of civilians, many of whom were unarmed women and children by US forces ( Nick Turse and Deborah Wilson, “Vietnam Horrors: Darker Yet,” Los Angeles Times, August 6, 2006). The massacre of over 500 civilians, including women, children, and old people in the village of My Lai in 1968 is yet another episode of indiscriminate violence against unarmed women and others during the Vietnam War.

Every year since 2013, Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, has introduced legislation (“Senate Rejects Blocking Military Commanders From Sexual Assault Cases,” New York Times, March 6, 2014) in the US Senate to take the prosecution of sex crimes out of the hands of commanders and place the prosecution of those crimes into the hands of independent prosecutors. This is the first year, 2021, in which that legislation has a chance of passage. That some commanders want to keep the investigations “in-house” using existing rules through the Uniform Code of Military Justice makes sense since sexual abuse cases can often make a military unit or base look undesirable and subject commanders to censure.

Sexual assault of women, both in the military and after discharge, and assaults against women as part of the so-called spoils of war is as old as history itself. A society that considers itself somewhat enlightened, at least in terms of how it treats those who volunteer for placement in harm’s way needs to be impartial in treating those who suffer sexual assaults though a fair system of justice. That fairness, sometimes, is not happening now.


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