Is Sexual Violence Endemic to the U.S. Military?

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Aaron Belkin is at the nexus of the military and its challenges in dealing with sexual matters in the ranks. A professor of political science at San Francisco State University, he founded and directs the Palm Center, a think tank that conducts research into gender and military issues that is part of the UCLA law school.

His new book, Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Façade of American Empire, 1898-2001, argues that U.S. military power hides a culture of sexual violence among U.S. troops. Throughout modern American history, he asserts, the bleak underside of military culture has been sanitized by excluded outcasts – African Americans, women, and most recently gays and lesbians – who have attested to the nobility of the armed forces in exchange for the right to serve. Battleland had this email chat with Belkin earlier this week:

Why did you write Bring Me Men?

I wrote the book to apologize for the activist work that I had done to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The repeal strategies that I pursued required me to glorify the military as well as American foreign policy more broadly.

This, in turn, added to the ever-increasing militarization of American culture and politics. Yes, the military and the troops deserve our respect. But when respect turns into unthinking glorification, that’s dangerous.

Bring Me Men is a critique of that process of adulation, and an apology for the ways in which I contributed to militarization in pursuit of repeal.

Is the U.S. military a force for change – integration of minorities, women and now gays come to mind – or something that preserves the status quo?

It is both.

There is no question that the military has done a good job integrating some minorities, and that when groups obtains equal or at least somewhat equal status within the armed forces, that has a powerful effect on civilian society. So in this sense, the military has been a force for change.

At the same time, the military portrays the ideal warrior in terms of a very narrow range of characteristics including stoicism, obedience and discipline. When civilians venerate and pursue that archetype as the ideal model of personhood, that crowds out a lot of other possibilities.

Why does the military seem to have such recurring problems with sex – from the current alleged abuse of female Air Force recruits at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas to the horrific crimes detailed in the movie The Invisible War?

In order to produce warriors, the military creates a version of the master/slave dynamic between subordinates and their superiors, thus giving commanders almost unlimited authority over the people they supervise and train.

Then, you combine this authority with two additional factors. The military must teach people how to overcome barriers that prevent civilians from engaging in violence. And, military culture is masculine and hierarchical, emphasizing power, dominance and subordination. When you combine these dynamics, you get rape.

You write about male-on-male rape in the military. Why? How common is it, and what, if anything, does it tell us?

Conservatively, I estimate that there are about 2,200 male-male rapes among service members each year. Despite its prevalence, male-male rape in the military is almost never discussed in public, and that silence reveals a lot about how the military and the public think about masculinity.

The male warrior is supposed to have a completely impermeable, sealed-up body that cannot be penetrated by anything. But at the same time, male warriors are often expected to endure rape, to “take it like a man.” And, these opposing expectations illustrate the broader range of contradictions associated with military masculinity, in that troops are expected to be masculine and feminine, civilized and barbaric, dirty and clean, and so on.

If you were in charge, what is the one thing about the U.S. military you would change? Why?

I would shrink our military dramatically, because the most significant threats facing our country are not military threats, because Pentagon spending wastes money that should be spent on education and because excessive military strength undermines our security.

All that said, the most dangerous thing about the military may not be the military itself, but civilian society’s uncritical glorification of the troops, and that would still be a problem even if the military were smaller.

Since 9/11, many have begun calling our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines “warriors.” You take issue with the American public’s idealization of the troops. But what’s wrong with that?

Respect for the troops is important. But when respect turns into uncritical idealization, that can easily slip into a mode of thinking in which people assume that what’s good for the military is good for America.

Consider former Justice Sanda Day O’Connor’s decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 case in which retired military leaders urged the court to uphold the constitutionality of affirmative action. Justice O’Connor wrote that if affirmative action is a good idea for the military, it must be appropriate for the rest of the country.

I support affirmative action. But when this kind of militarist thinking permeates civilian society, it becomes that much harder to reduce the Pentagon’s budget and to resist decisions to go to war. And it all starts with uncritical glorification of the troops.

Despite the fits and starts, isn’t the U.S. military becoming more representative of U.S. society?

Not really. The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” suggests that in terms of sexual orientation, the military does more fully reflect civilian society. But, the force still depends heavily on people of color and members of the lower and lower-middle classes, especially among enlisted personnel.

Men are over-represented service-wide, and as you move up in rank, the officer corps becomes more conservative, heterosexual, white and male. (Not many liberal African-American lesbian admirals!)

These demographic and ideological divergences are important for many reasons, including that when the military goes to war, suffering is not distributed equally, and the sons and daughters of Washington’s decision makers rarely see combat.

Given such sexual trauma over the years, how come the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has gone so smoothly?

The troops were already serving with gays, so repeal didn’t change anything on the ground. Prior to repeal, the Pentagon found that of the roughly 70% of service members who had served with gays and lesbians, more than 90% said that they did not have a problem doing so. And that included Marines and other combat troops.

Following repeal, gays and straights have continued to behave professionally, as has always been the case. And, Pentagon leadership has insisted that regardless of personal feelings, the troops must work together and follow the same set of rules. That’s why repeal has gone so well.