Moral Low Ground

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Why Our Soldiers Rape

“Army Strong,” yet vulnerable. (Photo: Women’s Views on News)

The U.S. Army has just released a damning report revealing a steady rise in the number of sexual assaults within the ranks over the past five years. This begs the obvious question of “why,” a query which cannot be quickly or easily answered. I’ve studied the problem of military rape over roughly the same period as the Army report covered, and I’ve identified the following factors as major contributors to the sexual violence.

It is no accident that the surge in sexual assaults happened as military recruitment standards were lowered as our nation’s armed forces struggled to fight major wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Army recruiters, under intense pressure to meet enlistment quotas, hid applicants’ adverse police or medical records. Thousands of applicants who previously would have been rejected on medical, moral or criminal grounds were allowed to enlist. One in six new soldiers who joined the Army in 2006 was admitted on waivers granted under the new lower standards. Serious criminal conduct such as aggravated assault, robbery, vehicular manslaughter,  gang-banging and even terrorism charges were excused. The Army even recruited soldiers from a youth prison in Utah, using lies and forged documents to enlist a 17 year-old. Said one Army recruiter: “We’re looking for high school graduates with no more than one felony on their record.”

Military training is also to blame for troops’ violent behavior. The military’s goal is to make bloodthirsty killers out of kids who are often more interested in beer and babes than they are in bullets and bayonets. It’s not an easy thing to do. Normal human beings  recoil at the thought of murder. We have an instinctual aversion to killing one another except, perhaps, in extremes of self-defense. “You can’t take civilians from the street, give them machine guns, and expect them to kill without question in a democratic society,” ex-Marine sergeant Chris White told Counterpunch. “People must be indoctrinated to do so.”

And so the Pentagon changed the way soldiers are trained. Desensitization towards violence has become a primary objective. Marine Lance Corporal Robert Zabala was “appalled” by his boot camp training. He was shown a “motivational” video showing dead Iraqis, explosions and firefights set to heavy metal music. While other recruits seemed to enjoyed the video, Zabala cried. He told of hundreds of recruits chanting “KILL! KILL! KILL!” in unison. “After a while that word almost becomes nothing to you… You say it so often that you really don’t think of the consequences of what it means to say ‘kill’ over and over again as you’re performing this deadly technique, a knife to the throat.” And that’s exactly the way the military wants it.

Perversely violent marching cadences not only desensitize new troops to the violence of war, they also serve to dehumanize the “enemy”:

“Throw some candy in the school ground, watch the children gather round…

  Load a belt in your M-60, mow them little bastards down!

We’re gonna rape, kill, pillage and burn! Gonna rape, kill pillage and burn!”

That brings us to sexism, which also pervades military training. This is all but inevitable when you consider that the armed forces are male-dominated, machismo-fueled institutions that achieve their objectives through the application of organized violence. Misogyny runs rampant; sexual harassment a daily fact of life. Worse, sexual assaults have been increasing year after year. There were 3,292 reported cases in 2010 alone and the Pentagon admits that around 80% of military rapes are never reported. This means that there are probably over 15,000 of these crimes every year in the U.S. military. A 2003 study by Dr. Anne Sadler of the Iowa City V.A. Medical Center concluded that 30% of female veterans were sexually assaulted while serving on active duty.

Women are violated in every stage of their military experience. Marine Corps recruiters have raped drunken underage girls, telling them they had to have sex if they wanted to become Marines. Military gynecologists have performed lewd examinations, sometimes without wearing surgical gloves. Dorothy Mackey, a former Air Force officer, was sodomized during a visit to her OB-GYN.Other women are attacked while living in close quarters with men, vastly outnumbered, on combat deployments. There are signs in American camps in Iraq warning females not to go to the toilet or shower at night without a “battle buddy” or risk rape. Colonel Janis Karpinski, she of Abu Ghraib infamy, testified that several female soldiers have died of dehydration in their sleep at Camp Victory near Baghdad because they refused to drink water late in the day, even in 120 degree heat, out of fear of being raped in the dark of night on their way to the latrines.

These assaults are usually committed by male superiors, a crime female soldiers call “rape by rank.” The powerful prey upon the powerless and the tough-guy culture of the armed forces makes it difficult for victims of sexual assault to report the crimes. Most commanding officers with discretion to press charges are men, many of whom either refuse to believe the victims or refuse to prosecute the perpetrators. Less than ten percent of cases end up in courts-martial. This sad fact only leads to further sexual assaults, as many military men correctly perceive that they can rape with impunity.

Many victims who report rapes are treated like they’re the ones who’ve committed a crime. Some are threatened, like highly decorated Gulf War veteran Sharon Mixon who was drugged and gang-raped by six of her fellow soldiers who swore they’d kill her if she opened her mouth. Occasionally the rapists do more than just threaten. Twenty year-old Marine Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach was eight months pregnant when she was murdered by Cesar Laurean, a fellow Marine who had raped her and then found out she was going to report him. Laurean beat Maria to death with a crowbar before burning her and her unborn child in a fire pit in his backyard.

Military training reinforces misogynistic behavior that can lead to sexual violence against women. Marching cadences can tell us a lot about the military mindset. They range from the mildly perverse:

This is my rifle, this is my gun [pointing to genitals]; one is for killing, one is for fun.”

to the shockingly graphic:

“Who can take a chainsaw, 

  Cut the bitch in two

  Fuck the bottom half and give the upper half to you…”

The Air Force has been hit particularly hard by a rape scandal involving cadets in training at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. One in eight female cadets there were victims of rape or attempted rape in 2003; seven out of ten reported sexual harassment. Many were punished for reporting rapes; the perpetrators usually got off scot-free. The Air Force, aping the standard military response when faced with atrocities, initially blamed the rapes on “a few bad apples.” Once the sheer number of victims was recognized, the Academy took corrective measures and the number of sexual crimes declined but as of 2012 such crimes were again on the rise. 

What’s often overlooked when examining the epidemic of military rape are the back stories of the rapists themselves. Two studies published in the journal Military Medicine found that half of all men who enlist in the Army and Marines were themselves physically abused as children. One in six suffered sexual abuse. These troubled young men are more likely to engage in sexual violence against their fellow troops. This problem was further compounded when recruitment standards were lowered, enabling many violent criminals to enlist.

The epidemic of sexual (and other violent) crimes in the military has many causes, some of which I’ve probably missed being that I am not an academic or an expert on military affairs. But the reasons listed above– lower recruitment standards in the 2000s, violent indoctrination in military training resulting in desensitization to sexual violence,  rampant sexism and the fact that many perpetrators of sexual violence are themselves the victims of abuse — are the main culprits fueling the surge in soldier-on-soldier sexual violence. In order to reverse this extremely disturbing trend, our nation’s armed forces will have to do a much better job of tackling these demons head-on. I believe this can be accomplished; at its best, our military is professional, justice-minded and highly adaptable. But doing so will require the steely, unwavering resolve usually reserved for fighting and winning wars. But what else is the fight against sexual violence among the ranks but a sort of war in its own right? And for once, this is a war worth fighting.

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One Comment

  1. Capt_dommMarch 15, 2013 at 1:11 pmReply

    So women who according to this article seem helpless to defend themselves from men raping them should be allowed to fight on the front lines. Something here isn’t adding up. Rapists should be tortured indefinitely but do we really want the “weaker sex” fighting against armies of men?

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