In a landmark move that propels women’s equality another step forward, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced yesterday that by January 2016, the ban on women in combat will be lifted. This is big news. A major step. Yet, in actual combat missions, little changes: women have been in active combat in both Afghanistan and in Iraq. According to The Daily Beast, the distinction was in the name: “attached” to a combat unit, instead of being “assigned.” The real significance lies in the “tens of thousands of additional jobs, allowing women to compete for higher positions and promotions previously denied them.” So chicks in the military are square now, right? Well, the Internet is abuzz with references to the combat military women have already been experiencing for years: sexual violence. If it comes from your own battalion, do we call it “friendly rape?” Surely Todd Akin could help us out with the appropriate terminology.
This historic announcement comes on the heels of a hearing by the House Armed Services Committee on sexual assault. As a secret that has become more difficult to keep under wraps, the truth about sexual violence against women within the military is reaching the forefront of American consciousness, thanks to more women speaking out against their attackers and those in the media who have listened. The Academy-Award nominated documentary “The Invisible War” depicts this ugly reality. By interviewing female soldiers who have undergone the physical sexual assault by members of their units, their trauma compounded by threats by the powers that be to fail to acknowledge and prosecute the assailants, “The Invisible War” shines a light on the layers of suffering some women in the military face. Imagine this: a female military officer is violently raped by her immediate supervisor. The regulated course of action for her? The chain of command insists that she report the rape to her immediate supervisor who has jurisdiction to decide if the case warrants an investigation and prosecution, or not.
Yeah, the same guy who raped her gets to decide if he should put himself on trial. In 2011, there were 3192 (According to the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office) reports of MSA (military sexual assault). The amount that made it to trial: 240.
Why? Is it the overwhelming culture of violence? The scarcity of non-violent sexual opportunity? An influx of violent men into the military? Is it the hierarchy, the rank and file that automatically pit women as lowly esteemed compared to higher ranking men? Is sexual assault part of the way female soldiers are broken down? Might it be that in war, when the task at hand includes the killing of other humans, a disconnect between some people’s humanity and morality becomes so wide that the distinction between right and wrong disappears? Or could it be the code among men, the time-honored system of protection within the military of those who commit heinous crimes?
I don’t know. I do know that in an all volunteer military that has seen near constant war since 2001, we have a ways to go to honor the sacrifices made by every single enlisted soldier. I know that by bringing the trauma – that counts among it sexual violence on top of war scenarios that see death and violence in more capacities I can ever know – to light, we might be able to stem an ugly tide. And that with the opening of every single military position soon to be available to women, there is likely to be greater advocacy for women within the military. A friend in a leadership role? Yes, please. Might a military that offers equal opportunity for women promote greater respect for the women within it? Could this be the beginning of a shift in culture that will render women less underlings and more equals?
At my most optimistic, I want to believe that equality – even if it’s mostly symbolic – might breed a lessening of sexual violence.
Then we can get back to the task at hand: more war.