To think I had to learn about horror stories going on in the US military from the British press. It seems that our military shares some of the same attributes as the Catholic church — exclusivity, privilege, and a culture that rejects criticism — and has some of the same vices: sexual predators flourish within it.
Rape within the US military has become so widespread that it is estimated that a female soldier in Iraq is more likely to be attacked by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. So great is the issue that a group of veterans are suing the Pentagon to force reform. The lawsuit, which includes three men and 25 women (the suit initially involved 17 plaintiffs but grew to 28) who claim to have been subjected to sexual assaults while serving in the armed forces, blames former defence secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates for a culture of punishment against the women and men who report sex crimes and a failure to prosecute the offenders.
Why would any woman want to serve in the military, given the statistics? Of course, that might be part of the reason rape culture thrives: there are plenty of military men who detest and diminish the contributions of women.
Last year 3,158 sexual crimes were reported within the US military. Of those cases, only 529 reached a court room, and only 104 convictions were made, according to a 2010 report from SAPRO (sexual assault prevention and response office, a division of the department of defence). But these figures are only a fraction of the reality. Sexual assaults are notoriously under-reported. The same report estimated that there were a further 19,000 unreported cases of sexual assault last year. The department of veterans affairs, meanwhile, released an independent study estimating that one in three women had experience of military sexual trauma while on active service. That is double the rate for civilians, which is one in six, according to the US department of justice.
Beyond the statistics, there are the stories. I’m sure the rapists in the military are the minority, but they are taking advantage of a culture that refuses to acknowledge their existence — that is more willing to punish and silence the victims than the perpetrators.
Stories such as Weber’s are commonplace. On mydutytospeak.com, where victims of military rape can share their experiences, there are breathtaking tales of brutality and mistreatment. Only 21 years old, and weeks into her military training, Maricella Guzman says she ran to tell her supervisor in the hours after her rape at a military boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois. “I burst into his office and said, ‘I need to speak to you,’ ” explains Guzman, now 34, and a student at a college in Los Angeles studying psychology, who talks about many lost years when she couldn’t function as a result. “One of the procedures if you want to speak to someone in the navy is you have to knock three times on the door and request permission to speak. But I didn’t do that. I was too upset. So my supervisor said ‘Drop’, which means push-ups. So I did the push-ups. But I was still in tears. I said, ‘I need to talk to you.’ He said ‘Drop’ again. Every time I tried to say anything, he made me do push-ups. By the time I was composed in the way he wanted me to be, I couldn’t say anything any more. I just couldn’t.” After that, Guzman didn’t try to tell anyone for another eight years.
Rape culture doesn’t hurt just women, either. The statistics on men being raped are also horrific.
But military rape is not only a women’s issue. According to the Veterans Affairs Office, 37% of the sexual trauma cases reported last year were men. “Men are even more isolated than women following rape,” Bhagwati says. “Because it has an even bigger social stigma.”
There is an interesting discussion of why rape is such a huge problem in the American military.
“We looked at the systems for reporting rape within the military of Israel, Australia, Britain and some Scandinavian countries, and found that, unlike the US, other countries take a rape investigation outside the purview of the military,” explains Greg Jacob, policy director at the Service Women’s Action Network. “In Britain, for example, the investigation is handed over to the civilian police.
“Rape is a universal problem – it happens everywhere. But in other military systems it is regarded as a criminal offence, while in the US military, in many cases, it’s considered simply a breach of good conduct. Regularly, a sex offender in the US system goes unpunished, so it proliferates. In the US, the whole reporting procedure is handled – from the investigation to the trial, to the incarceration – in-house. That means the command has an overwhelming influence over what happens. If a commander decides a rape will not get prosecuted, it will not be. And in many respects, reporting a rape is to the commander’s disadvantage, because any prosecution will result in extra administration and him losing a serviceman from his unit.”
There’s the start of a solution. The Pentagon claims that the problem of sexual assault in the military is now a “command priority” — but will they take the necessary actions to correct it, or will they turtle up and make it even more of an in-house process? I’d bet on the latter, given their history.
I also wonder, given the brutality and neglect with which some American soldiers are allowed to treat their comrades-in-arms, is it a surprise that they treat the people in the countries we occupy with brutality? Even disregarding the inhumanity of the rape behavior that is tolerated, I think it is also counterproductive to the long-term aims of our military.