Why Male Military Veterans Are Committing Sexual Assault at Alarming Rates


A recent study by the Department of Justice found that military veterans are twice as likely to be incarcerated for sexual assault than nonveterans. When asked about the finding, Margaret E. Noonan, one of the authors of the study, told the Associated Press, "We couldn't come to any definite conclusion as to why." The intrinsic and systemic connection between militarism and violence against women, however, makes this finding far from surprising.

Sexual violence has been a de facto weapon of war since the beginning of the patriarchal age. Raping and assaulting women is seen as a way to attack the honor of the enemy, and women have always been the spoils of war. The result is that many types of violence against women are exacerbated by militarism, including the indirect effects on civilian populations both during hostilities and after the conflict ends and soldiers go home. These include:

  • Rape/sexual assault and harassment both within the military and perpetrated on civilian populations

  • Domestic violence

  • Prostitution, pornography and trafficking

  • Honor killing

Examples are not hard to find. Before and during WWII, the Japanese enslaved as many as 200,000 "comfort" women, and after the defeat of the Japanese, the United States continued to use tens of thousands of Japanese women as sex slaves. During the 1990s more than 5,000 women were trafficked into South Korea primarily to work as "entertainers" near U.S. military bases. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped, frequently for the purpose of ethnic cleansing in countries such as Bosnia, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In this country, sexual abuse within the military is often ignored. None of the officers implicated in the Tailhook that involved the sexual harassment of women were ever prosecuted. Sexual abuse problems at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs have only been partially addressed, and the murders of military wives at Ft. Bragg, N.C., and Ft. Campbell, Ky., provide shocking examples of the problems of intimate partner abuse within military families.

A 2003 study reported that 30 percent of female U.S. veterans reported being the victim of rape or attempted rape during their military service. Last year there were 2,374 reports of sexual assault by service members. Despite this, the military quit providing emergency contraception as part of its medical formulary in 2002 (even while officially recognizing its importance), and a recent congressional attempt to reinstate it was scuttled due to lack of support (ironically, the erectile dysfunction drug Levitra is included in the formulary).

As the above illustrates, this latest statistic regarding sexual assaults by military veterans is clearly no accident. It a systemic part of a military culture that not only tolerates but frequently encourages the hatred and belittling of women.

What this study illustrates is that clearly the impact that militarism has on how men treat women does not end when a conflict is over; indeed, the effects of militarism during post-conflict periods can also be quite grave. So-called honor killings have risen dramatically in Iraq in recent years, with the most recent horrific killing of 17-year-old Duaa Khalil Aswad because she fell in love with a man of a different religious sect. Honor killings are a common tool for reestablishing a sense of control in the aftermath of conflict, and men returning from "war" frequently transfer their entitlement to commit violence from the battlefield to their own communities.

While the military acknowledges the problem, it has also tried to cast the blame on such factors as the relatively young age of the offenders compared to the population at large and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But neither explanation holds up in that this isn't a problem of men beating up men. Nor is it a problem of female vets, many of whom also are young and/or suffer from PTSD (99 percent of incarcerated vets are male), committing sexual assault. It is a problem of men raping and assaulting women.

It isn't surprising that the DOJ feigns bafflement about these latest statistics. For years now the problem of misogynist violence in the military has been the subject of lengthy reports and hearings. Yet the problem continues and with very good reason -- to cop an understanding of the issue and truly remedy the problem would require no less than a complete rethinking of the ethos of military violence and how it exacerbates the global pandemic of violence against women.

Editor's note: This essay is based in part on the author's previous work on militaristic misogyny, "Militarism and Violence Against Women."

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