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 failure to prosecute the offenders. ...
Whether or not the case goes to trial, it is still set to blow the lid on what has come to be regarded as the American military's dirty little secret. 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. ...
It is so well known that sex offenders go unpunished and victims penalised for reporting incidents, that most say nothing. Michelle Jones describes how she was still lying on the floor of her room in the barracks, her ripped shorts by her ankles, when her rapist stood over her and said, "I'll tell everyone you're a dyke and you'll get booted out if you report this." ...
Under the (now-repealed) US Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, openly gay people were barred from the military. Jones wasn't even sure she was gay at the time. But it wasn't worth the risk of reporting. "If I had spoken out, I would have been the one investigated," she says. "And it wouldn't have done any good anyway. I could tell you about 15 other women I know who had tried to report a rape and got nowhere."
Rape in any circumstance is brutal, but in the military the worst effects are compounded. Victims are ignored, their wounds left untended, and the psychological damage festers silently, poisoning lives. Survivors are expected to carry on, facing their attacker on a daily basis. "Unlike in the civilian world, a military rape survivor cannot quit his or her job and move on," explains Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, an organisation spearheading a campaign to reform this aspect of military life. "It's like rape in the family. Many victims often receive additional threats from their attackers." ...
Rape by a fellow serviceman also represents the most unfathomable betrayal to a soldier, according to Bhagwati. "You have to understand that from day one when you sign up, you are told that the people you work with are your family, that you will risk your life to save theirs. You live that uniform. It's who you are. And then, to be raped by one of your fellow servicemen? It's institutional misogyny."
The article, in which several rape victims recount their own experiences (and there are plenty more at My Duty to Speak), is both disgusting and infuriating. Why is rape so prevalent in the U.S. 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."
I like the phrase "institutional misogyny." Women were not welcomed in the military in the first place, certainly not by everyone. It's a male-centered, aggressively macho culture. And it's top-down. Superiors exert power over their subordinates. It's not a democracy. It's a place where you don't rock the boat.
The highest officers are older, from a time when women - and certainly gays - were not wanted in the military. Women just cause problems, right? And any woman who reports a rape is going to be considered a problem, possibly more than the rapist himself.
It's not everyone. It's only a small minority, I'm sure. But in a top-down, authoritarian institution like this, the solution must come from the top. Those in charge must consider the problem important, or nothing will change. Maybe this has just festered in the dark, but that needs to stop now.
Too bad this is in a British newspaper, rather than an American one, but we all need to do what we can to make sure this doesn't get swept under the rug. We need to shine a light on it. Make sure that ignoring the issue will cause worse problems for the brass than dealing with it.
Because I'm sure the military leadership will ignore it if they can. Let's not let them.