RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

A new documentary by director Kirby Dick, 'The Invisible War,' is "about systemic rape of women in the military and the retaliations and coverups victims face, ... the examples of what happens to women soldiers who are raped in the military are stunning, both in the violence that these often young women face, and in the viciousness they encounter after attacks."

Portrait, author and activist Naomi Wolf, 10/19/11. (photo: Guardian UK)
Portrait, author and activist Naomi Wolf, 10/19/11. (photo: Guardian UK)

Rape in the Military a Culture of Coverup

By Naomi Wolf, Guardian UK

15 June 12


new documentary by director Kirby Dick, The Invisible War, about systemic rape of women in the military and the retaliations and coverups victims face, has won awards in many film festivals, and recently even triggered congressional response. The examples of what happens to women soldiers who are raped in the military are stunning, both in the violence that these often young women face, and in the viciousness they encounter after attacks.

In December 2005, for instance, Kori Cioca was serving in the US Coast Guard, and was raped by a commanding officer. In the assault, her jaw was broken. When she sought to move forward with her case, her own commanding officer told her that if she pursued the issue, she would face court martial for lying; her assailant, who admitted to the assault while denying that rape was part of it, was "punished" by being restricted to the base for 30 days and docked some pay.

Cioca now has PTSD, along with nerve damage to her face. She is fighting the Veterans Administration (VA) to receive approval for surgery she urgently needs; she has also become a plaintiff in a class action civil suit against the Department of Defense.

''He didn't rape me because I was pretty or because he wanted to have sex with me; he raped me because he hated me," she asserts.

The numbers around the level of sex assault in the military are staggering. There is so much of this going on in the US military that women soldiers' advocacy groups have created a new term for it: military sexual trauma or MST. Last year, there were 3,158 cases of sexual assault reported within the military. The Service Women's Action Network notes that rape is always under-reported, and that a military context offers additional hurdles to rape victims: the Department of Defense, they point out, estimates that these numbers are misleading because fewer than 14% of survivors report an assault. The DoD estimates that in 2010 alone, over 19,000 sexual assaults occurred in the military.

"Prosecution rates for sexual predators are astoundingly low," they note. In 2011, "officials received 3,192 sexual assault reports. But only 1,518 of those reports led to referrals for possible disciplinary action, and only 191 military members were convicted at courts martial."

The Department of Defense, they further record, does not keep any kind of military sex offender registry that could potentially alert soldiers and commanders, let alone law enforcement, to the presence of military sexual predators. When women soldiers report their rapes, this group points out, the often feel revictimized by the process.

"Some evidence suggests that rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment survivors who have been treated in military medical settings experience a 'second victimization' while under care, often reporting increased rates of depression and PTSD … MST is the leading cause of PTSD among women veterans, while combat trauma is the leading cause of PTSD among men."

So, our women veterans are more likely to be traumatized by a sex assault by a fellow soldier, or a commander, than by their own battlefield or war experiences.

That rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment and their attendant consequences are often risk factors for PTSD isn't the only outcome for women veterans of sex crime – it runs even to higher rates of homelessness:

"39% of homeless women veteran VHA users screened positive for MST (Military Sexual Trauma) in 2010. In 2010 alone, 108,121 veterans screened positive for MST … Also in 2010, 68,379 veterans had at least one VHA outpatient visit for conditions related to MST."

The authors note than a high minority of these soldiers traumatized by MST are, in fact, male, which raises many other troubling issues.

MST costs us tax dollars, too: last year, "the VA spent almost $900m on sexual assault-related healthcare expenditures." I have heard from women veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular, that one serious problem they had – which led to health difficulties – was that female soldiers had high rates of illness from dehydration: they were reluctant to drink, even in 110-degree heat, because so many rapes took place in the portable outhouses.

Many of these stories involved a culture of male soldiers attacking women in the desert by ganging up at an outhouse with other men, or by assaulting a woman when she had stepped into the field to relieve herself. The fact that so many women veterans independently described these dangers suggests how systemic, and also how necessarily well-known to commanders, such risks must have become.

I do not believe that major reforms are being implemented in the military, to protect female veterans in substantive ways from sex crimes. I hope I am wrong. Instead, I find telling the superficial level of concern directed at this issue raised by The Invisible War.

The reaction to the film is an interesting Rorschach test for the country – revealing its attitudes to women, violence, sex and sexual violence. On the one hand, women in the military face rape and coverup, as related by The Invisible War, because of an aggressive patriarchal culture. That military culture is a traditional one. In this time-honored, empire-honed culture, war is a manly space; women are interlopers and thus "fair game", or else they are controlled and exploited as camp followers and sex workers. The old boys' network guarantees coverup for attackers; few women are present at the top to change this culture of sex crime and impunity.

The likelihood of rape being systemic in these more recent wars is raised by the desensitization that all soldiers undergo in order to kill, as well as by the kind of institutionalized tolerance or normalization of abuse that is part of the Baghram base detention center, the Abu Ghraib prison, and other scandals involving desecrating bodies and assaults on civilians. Rape could be systemic, and more systemic than usual, in other words, because war turns soldiers into dehumanized versions of themselves. Our especially brutal prosecutions of our recent wars makes that brutality quotient even greater. This hypothesis could help explain the very high rate of suicide among these veterans, compared with other, more lawfully prosecuted wars fought before we abandoned the Geneva Conventions, and before torture and illegal detention were part of America's foreign occupation tool kit.

The film has been covered widely by CNN, Hollywood Reporter, Amy Goodman, and many other outlets. That level of media coverage of a rape-related issue is very unusual. I have looked elsewhere – at the Assange prosecution, and at the Dominique Strauss Kahn investigation – to explore the issue of which allegations of sexual assault are "taken seriously" by our society's gatekeepers. Women are raped and beaten up, at home, every day, in vast numbers: there is systematic rape in campus fraternities every year, and sexual assault in prisons.

Congress isn't holding hearings, nor is CNN giving much if any real estate to these phenomena. No one is promising major overhauls of these reporting systems. So why are these rapes different from all other rapes? I would say that the politics of who is involved trigger these atypical responses.

This broad willingness to look at the issue, at least cosmetically, is revealing. The issue of rape in the military seems part of a cultural tipping-point: there appears something so timely and representative about shining a light on military rape, as a symbol of the general trauma Americans are becoming aware of among the population of veterans as a whole: news reports document that suicide now outpaces death under fire as the leading cause of mortality among vets. It also seems that we are willing to look at military rape, in a way that we aren't at, say, college rape, which is just as systemic, because the icon of the "military woman" is one of the few we have of a woman who is blameless.

How can our culture imagine a military woman as a "virtuous" victim, and thus more readily look at what happened to her?

She has sacrificed herself – that ultimate cultural marker for female virtue – and is facing dangers on our behalf. She is not out on her own, uncontrolled, being wild or "asking for it". She is, rather, in a state of discipline, under command, subordinated to the ultimate patriarchal control system. Also – though this is ridiculous to have to point out but bears noting if you follow the standard trajectory of rape prosecutions – military women generally get raped, when they do, while wearing a shapeless, sexless uniform: this takes off the table the usual inquiry into whether a woman was dressed "provocatively".

Finally, there is an impetus for corporate culture to tackle the issue of women being raped in the military, or at least make very loud tut-tutting noises about it – for the same reason that the Katy Perry video I critiqued got supported and widely promoted by the same media outlets that are owned by, or have advertising supported from, the corporations that make weapons systems and subcontract war the service industry.

Women who are willing to enlist are a major new profit center for War Inc. They are a new "product line", if you like, representing new growth capacities. New regulations that let women serve on the front lines represent a major boon to those industries that profit by expanding illegal combat zones around the world. It is useful for this market if women in war are glamorized, as in the Katy Perry video I analyzed, and bad for growth potential if it starts to get a reputation as a dangerous, sexually threatening place for a woman to work.

For the sake of women soldiers, who face so many other hazards and spend such long tours of duty away from their families, let us hope that the response to The Invisible War sparks more than five minutes of outrage and a gloss of concern. It needs to lead to actual housecleaning of a very corrupt and dangerous situation. your social media marketing partner
Email This Page


THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.