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The Roots of the Military's Rape Epidemic: An Empire Wreaking Havoc on Women Around the World

A core weakness of the current debate about sexual assault in the military is its narrow focus on U.S. military women.

Two American soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons


As more U.S. military women break the silence about sexual violence committed by their comrades in arms, it is clear that sporadic “scandals”—at the Tailhook Naval Aviators’ Convention (1991), Aberdeen Proving Grounds Ordnance Center (1996), the U.S. Air Force Academy (2003)—are not isolated incidents, but spring from the mycelium of U.S. military culture and ideology.

Victims’ testimonies, official complaints, lawsuits against the military, critical media reports, congressional hearings, and the 2012 award-winning documentary The Invisible War have pushed this issue into the spotlight.

In May 2013, an impatient Commander in Chief Barack Obama  summoned military leaders to the White House, instructing them to get to the root of this problem. Over the years the military has set up hotlines to hear victims’ complaints; initiated internal investigations, task forces, and trainings; changed  protocols and regulations; and repeatedly declared a “ zero-tolerance” policy.

So why does military sexual violence persist? One explanation offered by The Invisible War is that the U.S. military includes a higher percentage of “sexual predators” than civilian society. Also, some military commanders not only tolerate sexual assault; they are also complicit in covering up these incidents, punishing victims, and exonerating perpetrators or, at most, giving them a "boys-will-be-boys" slap on the wrist.

A weakness of the current debate is its narrow focus on U.S. military women. Cynthia Enloe, a leading feminist scholar of international relations, recently  notedthe importance of looking to “those who are pushed to the margins” in order to learn about the big picture.

To locate the root of the problem means looking beyond the assaults on U.S. military women—appalling as they are—to the routine incidents of military violence against civilians in combat situations and outside the fences surrounding U.S. bases overseas. Given their mission, soldiers are trained to kill. This means seeing “others” as foreign or less-than-human. Gender and masculinity are at play; so too are racism and national chauvinism.

Military violence in the Asia-Pacific region

Okinawan women have documented the history of rape by U.S. troops in Okinawa (1945 - present).  This research shows how sexual violence is a factor in contemporary tensions surrounding U.S. basing agreements in Okinawa, South Korea, and the Philippines.

Militarized prostitution in the Asia-Pacific is alive and well. Bar areas near the bases are thriving, and U.S. ships continue to make port calls in the Philippines and Thailand. In the past, Philippine women were called “little brown fucking machines powered by rice,” among other  pejoratives: “Yankee whore,” “bar girl,” or "hostess," reflecting U.S. soldiers’ expectations that women would provide sex.

In 2005, Lance Corporal Daniel Smith was  convicted of raping a Filipina identified as “Nicole” near Subic Bay. The case was the first to test the extent of Philippine jurisdiction under the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States. The district court convicted Smith, but the U.S. military had him transferred from the local jail to the U.S. embassy. He was later acquitted after Nicole issued a revised statement that cast doubt on her earlier testimony. Many feminists, including Task Force Subic Rape and the nationwide organization Gabriela,  critiqued this case as a testament to thelopsided relations between the United States and the Philippines.

In 2011 in South Korea, a U.S. soldier, “R”, broke into a woman’s home and raped her, only a month after another rape by “I” of an 18 year-old South Korean woman. Members of Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence held a press conference to denounce the latest rape incident in  2012. The group was founded in 1995 after a 12-year-old girl was gang raped by three U.S. servicemen. This incident sparked new opposition to U.S. bases in Okinawa, drawing protests involving 85,000 people.

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