Since Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that women will now be allowed to serve in combat, the argument has been made from liberals and conservatives and from military brass that this move will help stop the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. As I pointed out yesterday,
It is also hugely ironic that Panetta’s announcement came the same day that Congress was holding yet another hearing on the intractable problem of sexual assault in the military. The truth is that women are more likely to be attacked by other members of our military than by any enemy. The New York Times’ Gail Collins makes the unfortunate suggestion that having more women rise in the ranks might,
make things better because it will mean more women at the top of the military, and that, inevitably, will mean more attention to women’s issues.
Sexual assault in the military is not a woman’s issue. It is an epidemic and a national disgrace that is a direct result of the misguided notion of militarism that posits that strength comes from asserting power over others. Militarism has never been good for women because, among other reasons, it places them in harms way by armies that rape and assault women as a de facto military strategy and because women are more likely to become refugees, unable to support themselves or take care of their families and placing them in further danger of physical and sexual attack.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also makes the argument that more equality will lead to more respect and hence less sexual assault in the ranks, but the military is still a top-down power over structure and women who do serve in lower ranks will continue to be vulnerable. And let’s face it, we live in a country where Congress just failed to re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act and where we still don’t have the Equal Rights Amendment and the Senate has yet to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The disrespect of women’s rights, safety and well-being is a de facto national policy in the U.S.
A compelling argument can be made that women in positions of authority and power are likely to be a constructive influence in addressing this problem. But getting there is a slow process and let’s be real–women are a minority in the military and the odds of them being a substantive part of leadership any time soon is nil. There is also an argument to be made that when women and men are treated equally as a matter of policy then men are less likely to treat women as less than equal.
But in this case, we need to take a very hard look at what kind of equality we are granting to women and in this case it is the equal right to participate in a system that perpetrates and perpetuates violence and creates an atmosphere where women are highly likely to be victimized. That should not be the kind of equality we aspire to reach.
As I have said numerous times, I do not think the problem of sexual assault is truly solvable in a power over, dominator system such as the military, and as Holly Kearl’s recent reporting of the Congressional hearings into sexual assault in the military make clear, the Pentagon is not at all willing to take the necessary steps to address the issue or to even listen to the victims.
Just like the other military branches, however, the Air Force does not want to change the authority commanders have over the reporting and disciplinary process in these cases, even though clearly there are commanders who abuse their authority.
During the Q-and-A portion, I was shocked to learn from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) that not a single survivor who had come forward was interviewed during the Lackland investigation. Speier said she even wrote a letter in November requesting that survivors’ voices be included — and she was ignored.
If the military is not prepared to listen and to take very doable action now, telling women that going into combat is going to solve the problem is an outrage. The notion of going into combat and risking our lives and our health when the military has demonstrated time and again that they don’t want to act decisively to stop sexual abuse in the ranks should really give us pause to consider just how little they value women’s lives.
I also want to share some additional thoughts in response to my earlier piece on why I don’t think women in combat is a step forward. I am fully aware that women are all too often already in de facto combat positions and they do deserve to be compensated accordingly. That does not mean we should aspire to that as a way achieve equality. As someone recently pointed out to me, we need to take into account the context in which we are achieving equality, in this case a system that has traditionally seen women’s bodies as weapons of war and/or regrettable collateral damage. Nor am I persuaded by the argument that there will always be war so therefore why shouldn’t women participate equally. There doesn’t always have to be war and better we should work to stop that from happening. Nor should we consider the military to be a way to get an education and job training. That isn’t the purpose of our armed forces, only an incidental necessity. If we want better job training and education then we need to fund those programs and make them affordable instead of sinking our money into the military.