A soldier wonders why he’s never been told what not to do.
Earlier this week I had a conversation with a friend of mine that raises some interesting questions about leadership. We were talking about an article by Nikki Brown entitled, “Why Are So Many Good Men Accepting of Rape Culture?”
This is about leadership, silence, enabling behavior, manhood and culture. It’s about what you stand for. And it’s a post that I came by the hard way. I read the article and was talking to my friend about it when she asked me one simple question: “Would you write about Rape Culture on your blog?” I immediately said, “No. It doesn’t belong on my blog.” That argument lasted all of about 30 seconds. You either lead or you don’t. And, well, my blog is about leadership. How can I run a leadership blog and not talk about an issue such as the sexual assault and rape of a Service member? Especially in an organization comprised mostly of young men? How could I just turn a blind eye to that?
That sort of left me with nowhere to go. I was still uncomfortable with the whole discussion, but now I had to look a lot more carefully at it. I am a man. I have a responsibility to the group I lead. A responsibility to help set, shape, guide, determine, and state the norms of that group. Whether or not I wanted this responsibility is irrelevant. I am a man, and therefore I have an obligation to help determine the acceptable behavior of men. To sit back and let my gender be co-opted by any other group is wrong. To condone the sexual assault and rape and abuse of women through my silence is the same as accepting and condoning racism, or sexism, or stealing, or any other behavior outside the manhood code.
I am also a Soldier. Narrowing down the above requirements of manhood to a particular caste of society. A particular group that operates in a particular way. I have an obligation to outline for them, to help them determine what being a Soldier means. What obligations they face. What responsibilities are inherent in the oath they took and the uniform they wear.
This is not really a post about rape or sexual assault. Not really. It’s a post about the message we send when we tell someone that something, anything, is wrong because you might get in trouble if you get caught, versus teaching them that it is simply wrong. Rape and sexual assault are wrong under any circumstances. They are wrong if you never get caught. This is about the difference between protecting someone from themselves and teaching them accountability for themselves. One builds sheep. The other builds Warriors.
The broader question here is who will lead them? Who will show young men what being a man, being an American, being a Soldier is about? Who will teach them to rise above and accept responsibility for their actions and themselves? Who will change the argument from “Don’t do this, you might get in trouble.” to “Don’t do this because it is wrong. It is not what men do.”? Who will change the discussion from a fear-based protect-your-ass one to a discussion of what being a Soldier really means?
We stand in front of our formations on a Friday afternoon and tell Soldiers not to drink and drive, not to drink and boat, not to use a BBQ grill inside, not to speed, not to drive on a suspended license, not to get arrested and anything else we can think of, but never say to them, “Don’t rape. Don’t sexually assault anyone. Ever. Under any circumstances. Not your wife, your girlfriend, your boyfriend. No one. Ever. Oh, and by the way, you are also obligated as a man, to intervene and stop it when it happens. It’s not an option. It’s part of the code.” Why not? Why don’t we ever have that conversation?
Why are all the rape and sexual assault prevention strategies designed for women? Why are female Soldiers counseled and told and required to not be alone after dark? Why do all females learn to pay attention at all times to where they are, what they wear, the messages they send? What does it say about men and male Soldiers that our sisters-in-arms have to be worried and watchful for the very people they joined to serve with? Why are we not talking to men about a simple and straightforward and unassailable fact?
Rape and sexual assault are wrong. All the time. Every time. Under any condition. There are no mitigating circumstances. It is not part of the code. It is not what it means to be a man. We really need to spend some time looking at that. The idea that instead of putting the responsibility of women to protect themselves at all costs, we put the responsibility where it belongs. On men. That we look at the whole support structure that sends messages every day that rape is a woman’s issue.
If you move the discussion away from rape and sexual assault the larger issue that all leaders face is determining what they stand for and to recognize how their actions and attention to something send a huge message to their subordinates. The requirement for some very overt role-modeling. No assumptions. No half-steps. Fully invested, bluntly spoken leadership. “This is right. This is wrong. This is what a man does. This is what a man doesn’t. This is what a Soldier does. This is what a Soldier doesn’t. Not because you will get caught, or get in trouble, or cause someone to have to fill out paperwork and be inconvenienced, but because it is wrong. Because it is not who Soldiers are. It is not who good men are. Moving the discussion away from the fear of getting caught or punished to the very positive place of self-definition. I do or don’t do something not because I am afraid of the consequences, but because it is not part of my code of manhood.
Step back a little further and an even more difficult question pops up: why did I not see this right away? Why when I read the article did I not see how it applied to me immediately? Why did my eyes pass right over the fact that I am responsible at a very basic level to care about how my culture gets defined for me? Why did I not immediately see my obligation as an Army leader to help create good men? Not just good Soldiers, but good men. How could that happen? My own blindness to how I think, see, assimilate, process, and encounter my world was made apparent pretty quickly.
In short order, I could no longer sit comfortably in my own ignorance. If it doesn’t affect me, then it’s not really my issue is a lazy and worthless answer. I cannot care about everything, but I can listen and care about what speaks to my heart. I have a long way to go to fully grasp all the parts of this discussion, but at least I am beginning to see how ignorant I am. Sometimes, knowing what you don’t know is more important than knowing what you do.
So here it is. I am responsible and accountable for my actions and my behaviors. I am responsible to educate the next generation of young men about what I think it means to be a good man. I cannot sit back and let someone else decide that for me. I have to take an active role, and active part, I have to stand up and state my case. Otherwise the conversation, the roles, the rules, the norms, the acceptable behaviors all get made in my absence. I give up my right to complain and say “But that’s not me!”, if I do not stand up and say, “Enough.”
It starts with the Friday afternoon safety briefing currently designed to protect a Soldier from himself and to allow me to say, “I told him not to do that…” It ends with a simple statement. “Don’t Rape.” There is an entire leadership journey between those two places.
—Photo The U.S. Army/Flickr