Women in the Military


She was a small mousy girl in a military school. One day she walked into nursing class with a black eye, and didn’t seem inclined to explain how she got it. I suspected her boyfriend. He was barely taller than she, and short men are sometimes insecure about that.

Picture a hut out in the field. It might be in Iraq or Afghanistan, or somewhere else. Or you might picture a dormitory. A woman soldier is having sex with a male soldier, but doesn’t seem very happy about it. Maybe she’s not. Maybe she’s been coerced into it. There have been recent news stories about that.

The boyfriend and girlfriend mentioned above were both military students in the military school. I studied there too, but wasn’t military, so I only have suspicions, not real knowledge.

Years ago a friend told me about a young couple she’d known. They seemed to get along very well–until he served in the military. After he came back he was changed. He was very angry, and it was quite near the surface. As I remember the story, she was late meeting somewhere one day. He killed her for it.

it’s obvious that being in the military can be bad for your health. Frongline soldiers risk death and dismemberment daily, and it probably adds to the stress level when it’s not clear who the enemy is. Over at least the last 40 years it’s been clear that a soldier’s mental health is at least as at risk as their physical health. Having women on or near the front lines seems to make the problem more complicated.

I’ve heard stories over several years now that female soldiers get assaulted not only at the front, but in military academies as well. It’s not the enemy assaulting them, but fellow soldiers, whom they ought to be able to trust.

Does that mean women ought not to be included in military life? Some women WANT to be on the front lines, fighting alongside the men. If the’re physically, mentally and emotionally competent to do so, I think they should be allowed. But they also ought to be able to trust their fellow soldiers.

Why do these kinds of rapes happen? Male soldiers, at least on the front lines, have very difficult and dangerous jobs. It isn’t hard to imagine that they must often feel very scared and insecure. Sex could be an antidote for that, and armies have been notorious for rape after conquering cities, for instance, throughout all history. Raping fellow soldiers has rarely been reported until recently, though.

Some have reported that the rapists seem to feel entitled to sex. Could this be because of fear and insecurity? It might also be part of the relaxation of standards common to soldiers in war. It might also be part of old tradition: the women who followed soldiers to the battlefield used to be almost exclusively prostitutes. Prostitutes, of course, have no rights unless they demand and find a way to enforce them.

Even if the above is the case, what about rapes that take place in military schools? Are there more of these than at civilian colleges and universities? If there’s a statistically significant difference we’re probably talking about something else.

Maybe it has to do with the training male soldiers receive. They have to find a way to overcome fear, and maybe feeling superior helps them do that. Possibly feeling superior to women helps them to feel hypermasucline, and above fear. This is speculation on my part. I’ve never been in the military. But there’s little doubt that in many ways it’s a conservative institution. When I attended the military school someone told me there were (if I remember correctly) John Birch Society  members there. That wouldn’t entirely surprise me.

But we also have to remember that the military isn’t entirely conservative. The Armed Forces were desegregated not many years after World War II ended, and before the Supreme Court ruled on Brown vs the Board of Education.  Probably a lot of military officials didn’t support desergregation, but they followed orders, and made it happen. If the hadn’t, General Colin Powell would never have reached the stature he did–at least not as a military man.

I think it would be fair to say that integrating women into the Armed Services in such a way that they’re no longer subject to rape than they would be as civilians will not be easier than desegregation was. Women have been miliatry auxiliaries at least since World War I, possibly longer. So it’s not their presence that’s the problem, but the attitude of the men. What can be done about that?

I think in one respect soldiers are like teachers: we expect them to do a wide variety of things, some of which they may not be competent to do. Gore Vidal, the well-known novelist, said that most WW2 soldiers he talked with weren’t gung-ho. Many of them felt taken advantage of. And WW2 was a lot easier to justify than most of our wars since.

Another difference is that we no longer have the draft. Noam Chomsky commented that that had changed after Vietnam because the Pentagon realized they would soon no longer have a military if it continued. Because soldiers then were less patriotic? My guess is because they saw Vietnam as senseless, and having nothing to do with defending the country.

Chomsky went on to say that atrocities like Abu Ghraib happen in part because it’s a volunteer army, and people volunteer because they want to escape from where they grew up, and never have to return. Therefore they’re willing to do anything not to get in trouble. I’m not sure that follows. There were atrocities in Vietnam too, some say a lot more than were reported. Is it possible to have war without atrocities? I don’t know.

The stereotype of the soldier who did his job, came home, and lived happily ever after may be a fantasy for an awful lot of people. If soldiers win World War II felt taken advantage of, what do soldiers feel now? And how is this feeling to be counteracted? This country is strongly divided now, and the military is part of the country. Many probably believe in the traditional military virtues, but see them as increasingly hard to find. Both sides of the divide in the country see the other side as traitors, often enough. The anger and defensiveness this rouses can only exacerbate the problem.

I doubt this would be as much a problem if the kind of wars we fight now were really about defending the nation. If we all felt really threatened, it seems less likely that we’d fight each other as hard as we’d fight an invading enemy. That situation isn’t unprecedented, though. When the Jews rebelled against the Romans in 66 AD, Josephus portrays them, during the seige of Jerusalem, as killing each other as enthusiastically as they killed the Romans. In such a conflagration, women become that much easier to victimize.

In fact, almost everyone becomes easier to victimize. In chaos, only the powerful are secure, and even their security is relative. At its best, the military provides a structure strong enough to deter its members from defiance. Its best is somewhat contingent on the justice of the war being fought. If you’re truly fighting for your homeland, that’s one thing. If you’re fighting to enlarge someone else’s power, that’s another. Propaganda can be very effective, but eventually people start seeing through it. The realities of battle are rather different from discussions on TV.

Women, I think, are no less patriotic than men. Some want to put themselves on the line to defend their country, and more power to them. For that they ought to be thanked. All soldiers ought to be, but in practice, too few are in any way that’s really meaningful. We ought not to ask soldiers to serve, male or female, unless we have something that’s REALLY important for them to do. Who wants to fight and die for Blackwater and Halliburton?


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