Rape culture in the US military

There is a lot of talk but little action when it comes to combating rape in the American military.

Alleged sexual assault victim Kori Cioca
The officer who sexually assaulted Kori Cioca is still serving in the Coast Guard [AFP]

Last weekend, the US Air Force’s sexual assault prevention chief was arrested on charges of sexual battery – a fitting prelude, no doubt, to the Pentagon’s just-released report on soaring sex crimes in the military.

According to the report, an estimated 26,000 sex crimes took place in 2012. This beats the previous year’s estimate by 7,000.

A 2010 Time magazine article paints a bleak picture of a military advertised by upbeat patriot-pundits as the epitome of noble altruism and teamwork:

What does it tell us that female soldiers deployed overseas stop drinking water after 7 pm to reduce the odds of being raped if they have to use the bathroom at night? Or that a soldier who was assaulted when she went out for a cigarette was afraid to report it for fear she would be demoted – for having gone out without her weapon? Or that, as Representative Jane Harman puts it, “a female soldier in Iraq is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.”

Of course, females are not the only victims of military sex crimes; 13,900 of last year’s cases were reported by men.

The article also notes that the “[t]he Pentagon estimates that 80 percent to 90 percent of sexual assaults go unreported”.

Stepping up our game

Barack Obama has responded to the proliferation of sexual assault in the armed forces with jargon befitting a commander in chief:

[W]e’re going to have to not just step up our game, we have to exponentially step up our game, to go at this thing hard.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has meanwhile pronounced the military in need of “cultural change, where every service member is treated with dignity and respect”.

How, then, to convert ambiguous prescriptions for culture-changing game-stepper-uppers into viable strategies for “go[ing] at this thing hard”?

Inside Story Americas – The US military scandal: A culture of rape?

As contemporary US military jaunts into Afghanistan and Iraq have underscored, the institution itself is predicated on a contempt for human life and the criminal violation of boundaries, both national and personal. This context renders the prevalence of intra-military violations of boundaries via rape and sexual assault somewhat less than shocking; it would also seem to indicate that “cultural change” will not arrive in the form of a topical antidote.

Hagel proposes implementing an atmosphere of “dignity and respect… where offenders know that they will be held accountable by strong and effective systems of justice”, but it’s difficult to see how such ideals will be spontaneously cultivated by an organisation that recruited neo-Nazis, gang members, and criminals into its ranks to fight the war on terror – the subject of investigative journalist Matt Kennard’s recent book.

Rose Aguilar’s 2012 op-ed for Al Jazeera, “Military rape: The invisible war” contains additional examples of military “justice”:

Former Coast Guard Seawoman Kori Cioca is still fighting the Veterans Administration to cover the jaw surgery she desperately needs. In December 2005, she was raped by a commander who also hit her on the left side of her face. If she goes outside when it’s cold, her jaw locks up. Because she didn’t serve all of her time, she was denied ongoing healthcare coverage. Her assailant is still in the Coast Guard.

Expect to be raped

Early last year, Liz Trotta of Fox News charitably defended military rape culture, remarking in response to a Pentagon report according to which sex crimes in the armed forces had increased 64 percent since 2006: “Now, what did they expect? These people are in close contact”.

In reference to support programmes for victims of sexual assault, Trotta complained that she “thought the mission of the [military] was to defend and protect us, not the people who were fighting the war”.

It appears that the defence establishment’s outlook may coincide with Trotta’s, at least judging from the abysmal treatment offered to soldiers with military-induced mental health disorders – who are often redeployed rather than rehabilitated – and from factoids such as that one US military veteran commits suicide approximately every 65 minutes.

Rather than an army “to defend and protect us”, what we need is some form of protection against anti-humans like Trotta who delight in sustaining a system devoid of compassion. Far from an isolated and distinct phenomenon, sex crimes in the army are symptomatic of the greater ills of a society founded on militarism and a culture that celebrates the destruction of life.

Obama can “go at this thing hard” all he wants, but the thing isn’t going anywhere.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blogThe BafflerAl Akhbar English and many other publications. 

Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez