Readers Write: Rape and the U.S. Military

Should women be allowed to serve in the U.S. military? Are rape, sexual harassment and assault predictable byproducts of war, symptoms of masculinity gone awry, or larger symbols of America's imperialistic spirit at its worst?

These were some of the loaded questions AlterNet readers discussed in response to Rose Aguilar's widely read recent article, "Female Soldiers Treated 'Lower Than Dirt,'" and Ruth Rosen's "Wave of Sexual Terrorism in Iraq." Both explained in detail the ways that American soldiers use their positions of power as weapons over Iraqi civilian women, as well as their own female comrades-in-arms.

Rose Aguilar's July 14 article tells the story of U.S. Army Specialist Suzanne Swift, who alleged that she was propositioned for sex by three sergeants "shortly after arriving for her first tour of duty in [Iraq in] February 2004."

As Aguilar writes:

When Swift's unit redeployed to Iraq in January 2006, she refused to go and instead stayed with her mother in Eugene, Ore. She was eventually listed as AWOL, arrested at her mother's home on June 11, sent to county jail and transferred to Fort Lewis.
A colonel outside of Swift's chain of command is investigating the case, but Rich says she has been given little information with no time frame. "I believe they're trying to break her down using fear and intimidation."
Of course, Swift is not the first -- nor the last -- alleged victim of military assault. As Aguilar notes, rape and harassment are not infrequent in the armed forces: "Since the fall of 2003, the Miles Foundation has documented 518 cases of sexual assault on women who have served or are serving in Middle Eastern countries."

As usual, AlterNet readers had lots to say about the matter. Reader Bobsays weighed in: "War itself makes men very aggressive physically and sexually. I think it is this that is putting female soldiers at risk. Unfortunately, much of this was argued by experienced soldiers prior to the mixing of the sexes in units, but it was dismissed as sexism. I don't think it was sexism: it was an honest account of how the behavior of young men in a war environment, despite the best checks and balances of the military hierarchy, are still difficult to control. Think about it: horny guys with guns, horny guys, who after having a few friends killed and maimed, don't care a toss about the military hierarchy or what feminists think. It is that brutal on the frontlines …"

Bobsays continued: "The military tries to bring some creature comforts from back home to the war zone. So you have people getting into their bathing suits (and women into skimpy bikinis) and dipping in inflatable pools. In fact, the chicks are usually out on the grass sunbathing when they aren't working. So the guys have a very clear idea of what they look like -- and keep in mind these are women who are in top physical condition."

Pianojo responded with passion: "Oh PLEASE!!! So what you are saying is that American soldiers are so f*king WEAK-WILLED that they are INCAPABLE of CONTROLLING themselves? WHAT A CROCK OF SHIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

But ChristopherLL agreed with Bobsays, claiming that to "put a person in an environment where there are no safety valves, and the reality is aggression at its most elemental and life-threatening, then it is an exercise in futility to even think that there will not be overt sexual acts, especially if an exposed female body is in close proximity … To introduce females into combat or intense military situations just seems to be pushing the envelope."

Not surprisingly, this sort of attitude -- that women should not be allowed in the military -- didn't go over well among AlterNet's large female readership. Caitlin reminded us: "War is the big problem, but so is the underlying misogyny held by the vast majority of people in this world. If these men didn't already have the idea in their head that women are good for fucking and not much else, then even in the most stressful situations, they wouldn't turn on each other … War is the problem, yes, but so are our antiquated views on gender and sex that make women's bodies into objects to be possessed by men."

And another reader, Assumedvalue, backed Caitlin up: "I think the problem is that when someone makes an argument like this, they are saying 'Well, men can't help themselves. There's stress … and aggressiveness builds …' The problem with this argument is that you are erasing the responsibility from those men for making the right decision and from respecting the people they work with and whom they need while in battle. War may make people many things, but it does not make them incapable of making decisions. And it doesn't take a feminist to see that this argument is lacking in personal responsibility on the part of the actor."

Reader Arolem also took Bobsays to task: "All respect to your service, Bobsays, and thank you for it. I agree with your initial point -- war IS the problem, along with the mentality that war is a way to solve international issues. But you really don't see your argument above as sexist? This is the old "boys will be boys" rape defense … Current military culture is the problem, and combat situations are the most heightened examples of that culture."

Still, reader Rsaxto urged women not to enlist in the armed forces at all: "An American woman these days who signs up for the USA military has got to be really ignorant or really brainwashed or really dumb and possibly all three. Don't sign up to be a victim of humiliation, injury or death. Don't validate the Bushie war criminals."

Pickles78 took offense at the idea of placing blame for rape squarely on women's shoulders. "Why should a woman not enlist today or any day in the military? Would you also suggest that children not attend a Catholic mass for fear of the [priest] raping them? Or maybe you would tell black people to move from the South if they want hate crimes to stop. You are incorrect my friend … the military is just as obligated as any other employer to protect the well-being of its people, and they are still REQUIRED to conform to federal, state and local laws. Rape is rape is rape."

Simple fear weighed in with words of support for Pickles78: "As a vet and the wife of a vet, I KNOW what you are saying … As a survivor of military rape, I am with you … This is nuts. Rape is NOT about being horny, it is about power and control."

In another AlterNet story -- published the same day as Rose Aguilar's piece -- Ruth Rosen from Tomdispatch chronicled the "wave of sexual terrorism" currently perpetuated by U.S. soldiers against Iraqi women.

Her starting point was the alleged rape and murder of a young Iraqi girl, perpetrated in March by a group of five American soldiers. The child's body was set on fire to cover up the crimes, and her father, mother, and sister were also killed.

It's part of a much larger problem, as author Rosen reminds us:
Still, the invasion and occupation of Iraq has had the effect of humiliating, endangering, and repressing Iraqi women in ways that have not been widely publicized in the mainstream media: As detainees in prisons run by Americans, they have been sexually abused and raped; as civilians, they have been kidnapped, raped, and then sometimes sold for prostitution; and as women -- and, in particular, as among the more liberated women in the Arab world -- they have increasingly disappeared from public life, many becoming shut-ins in their own homes.
AlterNet readers had varied reactions to the story. Gazooks commented: "In not acknowledging the history of terror and rape that was systemic in Saddam's Iraq, this piece diminishes the issue because it simply reads like propaganda. How necessary is it to characterize the American military as an organization of rapists dishonoring the Iraqi people and thereby distort and inflame the issue?"

Reader Caitlin responded angrily, "What the hell? So if we put it into the context that Saddam had been responsible for 'rape rooms' prior to the U.S. invasion, does that suddenly make the rape of Iraqi women by U.S. troops OK? There are absolutely NO CIRCUMSTANCES under which it is OK to rape a woman …"

And Jstillwater agreed: "This isn't an article about Saddam's Iraq, it's an article about Iraq in the present. In the present, Saddam and his sons are not raping anyone. Americans have controlled Iraq for several years, and it is American soldiers who are committing sexual assault, murder, and other atrocities. I do believe that the majority of Americans, including men and women in the military, are decent people. As decent people, our troops and everyone who supports them should denounce these crimes, not minimize them by pointing to the past."

But reader Gazooks insisted that the majority of rapes in Iraq are still committed by Iraqis against Iraqis: "The only reason that Saddam and his sons are not still raping is because the Americans put an end to their raping. You can not simply eliminate the historical context of a nation, region or culture that by its very nature debases women's social status to second class and subscribes to all manner of violence towards women. The fact remains that the vast majority of rapes are perpetrated by Iraqis on Iraqis. Moslems on Moslems."

Maribelle strongly disagreed. "Women in Arab countries are often treated as second-class citizens; many, many organizations are working on these issues. Yes, I support those organizations. But when AMERICAN troops, paid for by MY tax dollars, are RAPING WOMEN in a country we are OCCUPYING, I think everyone *EVERYONE* in that country should be calling foul, and begging the forgiveness of the Iraqi people."

The notion that rape is only a "women's issue" -- that men don't care about violence against women -- was questioned by reader Tejanopapa: "I don't want to draw a line in the sand separating women from men, nor women's issues from men's issues. Men do not always need to be in the forefront of an issue in order to be genuinely concerned. We can say, when we read a well-written article like this one, 'Hurray! Thank you for keeping this issue in front of us.' True, men are less vulnerable to rape than are women. Rape is an especially heinous affront against women, one which makes both men and women sick to their very core. And, the number of rapes increase during war. Check out Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will. But we need to remember that war also exacerbates children's vulnerability; it exacerbates old people's vulnerability."

Thank you to everyone who participated.
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