A long-ignored aspect of Washington’s war machine is now getting sporadic attention in the U.S. mainstream media. This is the explosion of violence against women, both in war zones and the military itself.
The corporate media, however, is incapable of tracing this problem to its source: the character of imperialist military indoctrination. Gender-specific brutality is a necessary part of the military’s role, and recognizing this lays the best foundation for a fight against it.
Sexist, racist indoctrination. Male-supremacist and racist ideology is built into military indoctrination. In order to teach workers to kill without questioning, they must be coerced into denying the humanity of the enemy, however defined. Sexism and racism are essential tools.
Drills that are now officially banned most clearly illustrate the identification of sex with violence that still pervades military training: “One, two, three, four. Every night we pray for war. Five, six, seven, eight. Rape. Kill. Mutilate.” Intentional sexual innuendos are routinely used in descriptions of weaponry. And civilians, of course, are merely “soft targets.”
Eli Painted Crow, a Yaqui Indian and 22-year Army vet, reported on the Democracy Now radio show that areas outside military bases in Iraq are called “Indian country”! This reference to U.S. genocide as a fighting motivation is a telling comment on the racist basis of the war and its crimes.
Women in war zones. The torture and sexual humiliation of men and even boys at Abu Ghraib Prison was exposed in 2004, and this undoubtedly played a major role in shifting U.S. opinion against the war and occupation.
Realizing that atrocities against women by U.S. and Coalition forces have even greater damaging potential, the Pentagon and Congress have colluded to keep these classified. But a few instances have nevertheless been brought to light, mostly by the foreign press.
News surfaced last year of the stalking, rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in Hadditha by four soldiers, who also killed her family. The ringleader had been accepted as an enlistee at the age of 19, despite criminal convictions for violence and substance abuse. The Army, seriously short of recruits for this wildly unpopular war, has significantly upped the number of “moral waivers” it grants to recruits with emotional problems and criminal records.
The “friendly fire” of abuse and discrimination. Relatively few women on active duty report rape or sexual harassment — because they, rather than the perpetrators, are seen by their fellow GIs as traitors to the code of camaraderie.
But a 2003 study for the Department of Defense found that almost one-third of women receiving healthcare through the Veterans Affairs system experienced rape or attempted rape while serving. Of those who did, 37 percent reported being raped multiple times and 14 percent being gang-raped. A study after the first Gulf war found that servicewomen who were sexually assaulted were more likely to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder than those who were exposed to combat.
In 2005, over 100 women reported being raped, assaulted or sexually harassed by their military recruiters, and 80 recruiters were disciplined (although few were prosecuted).
Col. Janis Karpinski, the only upper-level officer to be punished for the Abu Ghraib outrages, revealed that three female GIs died in 2005 of dehydration, because they refused to drink water late in the day for fear of being sexually assaulted if they went to the latrine at night.
Suzanne Swift was forced into a sexual relationship with her sergeant in Iraq, punished and harassed by him when she ended it, and further sexually harassed by two other sergeants. She went AWOL rather than face repercussions, while the third got a letter of reprimand. Swift herself was court-martialed and jailed for 21 days and must remain in the Army until 2009, possibly facing redeployment to Iraq.
In February, a Missouri TV station exposed suspicious circumstances in the death of Pfc. LaVena Johnson, a 19-year-old African American who died in Iraq in 2005. She had been hit in the face, a blood trail was photographed outside the tent where she was found, and someone apparently tried to set her body on fire.
Despite these and other damning facts, the Army ruled her death a suicide and closed the case. Supporters of Johnson’s family have posted an online petition at this link calling on Congressional Armed Services committees to force a new investigation.
In recent years, 160,000 female soldiers have served in Iraq and Afghanistan — in comparison to 7,500 women in Vietnam and 41,000 in the first Gulf war. Women now make up 15 percent of all troops. This is a little-remarked effect of the poverty draft.
Officially, women are still not allowed to serve in combat roles. But, in Iraq, where there is no “front” in a war against guerilla forces and broad popular resistance, the distinction between combat and non-combat spheres has virtually disappeared.
Conservatives charge that the military integrated women into the services in craven capitulation to feminist demands. In fact, women were needed to fill the ranks of the all-volunteer military.
The status of today’s military women is still second-class, however, and this discrimination imposed at the top gives their peers and immediate superiors license for mistreatment, physical and otherwise.
The culprit is the war machine. Domestic abuse in military families, which occurs at five times the rate among civilians, is another rampant problem — even though it is under-documented by the military, which only considers cases involving current spouses and may be ignoring incidents reported to civilian authorities.
Among the most publicized clusters of violence were the 10 domestic homicides at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, between 2002 and 2005. The Army’s investigation cited a need to look into the impact of frequent and long-term deployments on domestic assaults. More to the point, they might also have seen fit to explore the impact of fighting a losing and unjustifiable war and suppressing the population of a hostile occupied country.
But the military sees the problem as one of “anger management” rather than its own training, which makes potential abusers feel entitled to brutalize women and children.
Whether the violence is directed against Iraqi women, female U.S. soldiers, or military spouses and partners, the source of the problem is not beleaguered, underpaid male GIs. The masses of these soldiers are ordinary poor and workingclass people, themselves abused and held hostage in the indefinite servitude of “stop loss.” Men are not naturally abusers, and neither are they the only abusers.
Even given the time-tested methods of military indoctrination used against them, most soldiers survive their training with their humanity and instinct of workingclass solidarity still alive. The massive numbers of GIs who have turned against the Iraq war demonstrate this. But other soldiers, entering the military already burdened with racist and sexist prejudices, emotional problems, or rightwing attitudes, succumb to the pressure.
Despite politicians’ noble-sounding but utterly cynical rhetoric to the contrary, the military’s true job is to enforce imperialist conquest essential to the capitalist system. The more abominable and self-serving the occupation, the more mayhem and rape is needed to keep the target population down. “Collateral damage,” in and out of the military, is par for the course.
When the first justifications for the war in Iraq fell to the ground as lies, one of the new ones raised was “to bring democracy to the Iraqi people,” including rights for women (who had many more before the U.S. wars than the U.S. will ever acknowledge). Nothing better exposes this, too, as a lie than the daily abuse of women soldiers and civilians fostered by the military ethos and the institutionalized second-class status of female GIs.
What can be done. The U.S. military’s professed policy of “zero tolerance” of sexual abuse is a cruel joke. But this doesn’t mean that a serious no-tolerance policy couldn’t work.
In the war involving the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, both sides observed such policies. So did the Chinese Communist Party during its struggle for power. Rapes by these troops were practically unknown.
“No tolerance” could become something closer to reality in the U.S. military only through massive, militant organizing and protests. But the benefits of the fight would be immeasurable — not only for individual soldiers, but in building workingclass solidarity among soldiers, whose resistance is crucial to ending the U.S. wars and occupations. This is a battle well worth the determined energies of all opponents of the masters of war.