You might think the military’s position on gender rights is only a question of values. But what if endangers all of us?
Most of the time, when the military thinks about the interaction of social issues and its ability to execute objectives in support of national security goals, it thinks of them in very traditional terms. When considering allowing women to serve in positions where they might be exposed to hostile fire, the issues they looked at were unit cohesion, morale and discipline, and how to maximize manpower utilization. With lesbians and gays serving openly, the primary focus was unit morale and cohesion, and how discharging otherwise qualified personnel wasted the money spent training these individuals. Currently, the DoD is dragging its feet on changing its antiquated medical policies, which force the discharge of all transgender service members.
In both these earlier cases, only the most hyperbolic opponents insisted that inclusion would destroy the organization as a fighting force. The military itself saw proposed changes as tweaks that, while they might make incrementally affect morale, retention, and recruitment, they were not a threat to the organization’s ability to effectively execute its mission in support of national security.
That line of thinking needs to change. The climate and attitudes within the DoD towards gender have repeatedly and directly threatened US national security interests over the past decade, and failure to address them will continue to do so. Currently, military culture devalues the basic human worth of anyone who does not fit the traditional warrior narrative of straight, cisgender, and male. When this devaluation finds expression, the results are catastrophic.
The issue of sexual assault in the military has already garnered a great deal of public attention. A 2012 study showed that approximately 26,000 US service members are sexually assaulted in one year. Only 5,061 were reported in 2013, and then only 484 went to trial. Those trials resulted in only 376 convictions. Another investigation found that only one in five females and one in 15 males in the United States Air Force would report having been sexually assaulted by service members. This comes as no shock: 90% of sexual assault victims who report it are involuntarily discharged.
Ninety percent of 5,061 represents one and a half 3,000 man brigades, or the entire crew of a Nimitz Class aircraft carrier plus most of its air wing; all forced to leave the military because they were raped. That’s approximately the same number of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined over 13 years of war.
In one year.
The idea that a military culture which has normative attitudes towards gender and sexuality is not new. In 1996 the Duke Law Journal conducted an extensive review of rape and the military, and concluded:
“Norms conducive to rape include certain normative attitudes toward masculinity, toward sexuality, and toward women, and also include norms favoring de individuation (described below) among group members. When primary group members with rape-conducive attitudes enter a deindividuated state, the risk of individual or group rape becomes significant, especially if external deterrents are minimal.”
Based on the DoD’s figures, a system which is more than 13 times as likely to involuntarily separate the accuser than the accused cannot be considered a credible deterrent. Other DoD climate studies also show climates hostile towards women are still pervasive.
“Cadets/midshipmen noted that crude and offensive language and sexist comments occur frequently and are an ingrained part of the experience at the academies… cadets and midshipmen feared that any pushback might diminish their standing in the eyes of their peers. Many participants, both cadets/midshipmen and faculty/staff, noted that verbal behaviors, such as crude and offensive language and sexist comments, contribute to a disrespectful environment where more aggressive behaviors might propagate.”
The combination of poor climate and lack of credible legal deterrent has led to the statistics which landed military leaders in front of Congress.
Despite shocking statistics, and negative attention, the DoD has refused to change the way sexual assault cases are handled. The Military Justice Improvement Act introduced by Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) would have removed the power to decide whether to try sexual assault cases from the military chain of command and put it into the hands of an independent military prosecutor.
Yet, the DoD successfully fought against this modest bill tooth and nail in order to preserve the status quo. While some commanders have overridden prosecutors’ recommendations not to pursue charges, there remains a deep seated distrust of the military system’s ability to successfully prosecute assailants. Anecdotes and horror stories of unit commanders coving up sexual assaults are common, and lead to a belief that reporting an assault will lead to negative repercussions, while not actually punishing the perpetrators. The DoD’s own statistics above suggest this perception is accurate. This is also supported by the results of their own focus group work.
“Cadets/midshipmen discussed their reluctance to report incidents of either sexual assault or sexual harassment due to perceived damage to their reputations. They articulated various repercussions from reporting, such as being ostracized for getting a fellow cadet or midshipman in trouble, getting themselves in trouble for other offenses (underage drinking, fraternization), or being blamed for causing the incident. They believe that calling such attention to themselves can diminish their social standing among peers and have a future impact on their careers. Cadets/midshipmen also noted that in some instances, they would like to discuss an unwanted incident with someone they know and trust but they are reluctant for fear the incident would have to be reported.”
Another area where the Pentagon lags the rest of the United States is in workplace protections for lesbian and gay service members. Ninety-two percent of Fortune 500 companies provide workplace and employment protections for lesbian and gay workers. After Executive Order 11246 was amended by President Obama, it is illegal for the federal government of federal contractors to discriminate in the workplace based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Only, the DoD was exempted from this Executive Order. LGB service members have no legal protections under the current Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) policy. It is perfectly legal to give someone a career ending evaluation simply for coming out as lesbian or gay. Service members who are harassed, demeaned, or otherwise mistreated based on their sexual orientation have no legal recourse unless it meets the much stricter requirements of a UCMJ violation and Inspector General investigations. Other studies have shown that “those who hold command leadership positions are more likely to have personal and professional opposition to homosexuality.” Simultaneously, elected officials have worked to ensure that anti-gay harassment and discrimination inside the DoD are legally protected by federal statute.
Large swaths of the chaplain corps actively refuses to minister to LGB troops, either out of personal belief or forbidden from doing so by their denominations. The North American Mission Board (NAMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention has forbidden its chaplains not just from ministering to lesbian and gay troops and their spouses but from even officially associating “with a chaplain, contractor or volunteer who personally practices or affirms a ‘homosexual lifestyle’ or such conduct.” The Catholic Archdiocese for Military Services issued similar guidelines. Studies have also shown chaplains from conservative faiths have are vastly over-represented within the military. As a result, I have been told by sources that at one major Army installation there are over 50 chaplains, and only one of them will minister to LGB people. Senior service members tend to be more religious, which is strongly correlated with anti-LGB attitudes.
Academic studies show that there that bias against LGB people is vastly underestimated by traditional surveying methods. Men, people with authoritarian outlooks, and those who have a strict view of male and female gender roles are significantly more likely to hold anti-LGB views. Additionally, attitudes towards women and gays are also highly correlated with attitudes towards transgender people. Men consistently show a higher degree of bias towards LGBT people. Negative attitudes towards transgender people were associated with endorsement of a binary conception of gender; higher levels of psychological authoritarianism, political conservatism, and anti-egalitarianism, and (for women) religiosity; and lack of personal contact with sexual minorities.
Based on all of this, it should be unsurprising that despite the repeal of DADT, less than 50% of lesbian and gay service members are out.
Even more jarring, though is the connection between gender role stereotyping, anti-LGBT animus, and rape, according to the Duke Law Journal article.
“Similarly, sex-role stereotyping generally-regarding occupational, familial, and social roles-also has been found to be associated with rape-propensity, at least in the contemporary American context. Such sex-role stereotyping includes views that women should not do men’s work nor men do women’s work…”
Finally, there is the medical ban on open service by transgender individuals. Studies, military legal reviews, members of congress, and even other allied nations have all called out the outdated US policy, which at its core is arbitrary and capricious in its desire to keep out transgender people as “undesirable.” Transgender service members with allied nations report feeling deeply uncomfortable working with US troops, given they feel that there is no deterrent to US troops mistreating them. Despite this, the promised review process of the ban remains stalled.
Given the demographics of the military, focus group studies, congressional testimony, and the academic research on the topic, military culture is more hostile than the public at large towards women, gays, and transgender people. This hostility, and the associated sex role normativity, also increases rape-propensity in a military context. All of these issues are correlated in the general population, and it is likely they are in the military as well.
The friction caused by the culture and policies often seem to be treated as an afterthought, or an issue to be punted down the road. However, this assumes that military cultural issues only impact other members of the military, and only have internal effects that have little to no impact on operations or strategic national security interests. However, multiple incidents over the past decade reflect the consequences of a failure to address these institutional problems.
Abu Ghraib is a starting point for the operational effects of a military culture that is hostile to women, LGBT people, and tolerant of sexual assault. Iraqi prisoners in US custody, both male and female, were systematically raped, tortured, and sexually humiliated. Some of the guards were women, which seems to demonstrate a high level of cultural desensitization and acceptance of sexual violence and dehumanization among individuals who would expected to be more cognizant of such issues. Many of these crimes capitalized on misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic attitudes of both the guards and prisoners. If attitudes and policies towards women, sexual assault, and LGBT people in the U.S. military were different, Abu Ghraib might not have happened, or would have been responded to far more quickly and forcefully than it was.
The consequences of the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib are hard to understate. Some women who had been raped became pregnant, and in some cases, were later murdered by their family members in “honor” killings. The photos became a rallying cry and potent propaganda tool for the Iraqi insurgency that required 4,000 American lives and 9 more years to tamp down. The incident severely damaged US standing in the international community, and damaged our reputation with our Gulf State allies. Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, Foreign Minister of the Vatican, described Abu Ghraib as “…A more serious blow to the United States than September 11, 2001 attacks. Except that the blow was not inflicted by terrorists but by Americans against themselves.”
In 2006, in what has become known as the Mamudiyah Killings, five US soldiers gang raped and murdered 14-year-old Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, and killed her mother, father, and 6-year-old sister as well. Two other soldiers who were not part of killings were court martialed for helping to cover them up. As is all too often the case, the soldier who came forward to expose the crimes was forced out of the service, and now lives in hiding due to the death threats he has received.
The rape and murder of Abeer Qassim and her family could be dismissed as the work of a few psychopathic individuals rather than a systemic failure of the institution. However, the fact that other service members were willing to help facilitate the atrocity, that the whistleblower was afraid to report it, and ended up in hiding due to death threats from other service members speaks to deeper issues within the system. If service members are unwilling or unable to stand up to a culture that perpetrates atrocities and mass murder against foreign civilians, expecting them to do so within their own ranks seems to be a stretch. Indeed, of the few women who file unrestricted reports of sexual assault, over half report reprisals and hostility towards them by other service members in their units.
This incident was a propaganda victory for insurgents, who claimed numerous attacks afterwards were in retaliation. It also strengthened local support for the insurgency, both directly and in the form of human intelligence and other forms of passive support. US ability to conduct counterinsurgency operations was directly affected as a result of this rape and murder. Incidents like Abu Ghraib and Mumudiyah in Iraq bled over into Afghanistan as well, where allegations of rape by US troops have been lent an air of credibility. Indeed, both media outlets in the region and the Taliban exploit the plausibility of such accusations, while acting as a wedge issue with local host governments.
The effect of military culture failures on international relations and strategic efforts has come to the surface again recently. Studies of historical data show that US troops abroad commit rape at a far higher rate than their civilian counterparts stateside. Whether it is rape, forcing victims to perform homoerotic acts as a form of humiliation, using articles of women’s clothing to denigrate the gender identity of prisoners, or a system where reporting even the worst atrocities is discouraged by internal group pressures, these are symptomatic of a larger problem where gender and masculinity is violently normed.
This was again illustrated recently in Olangapo. Pfc. Joseph Pemberton is accused of murdering Jennifer Laude, a transgender woman in the Philippines, after going back to a hotel with her. She was found with her head in the toilet, apparently drowned. The victim’s friend also reported she was afraid that the alleged perpetrator would discover she was transgender.
When photos of the grisly killing emerged, reaction in the Philippines was swift. The Philippine government angrily demanded immediate extradition of Pfc. Pemberton. Protests erupted in the Philippines, New York, and San Francisco, where organizers burned American flags and held signs that read, “U.S. troops out now.” US participation in the multi-lateral exercises there have been put on indefinite hold. Calls of a “National Day of Rage” in the Philippines continue.
The potential damage to US national security interests is serious. Joint missions have targeted al Qaeda affiliate Abu Sayaf in the Philippines since 2002. The US also only recently signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines in April of 2014. While ostensibly meant to assist with disaster relief, the treaty is a significant part of the overall shift in US strategy to focus defense initiatives to the Pacific. The brutal murder of Jennifer Laude has intensified internal pressure on the Philippine government to withdraw from the treaty, as well as future cooperation.
It may be possible for the DoD to cover up the damage of a toxic culture towards women and LGBT people when the hostility and violence is service member against service member. However, when these attitudes are allowed to take hold in a permissive environment, sent overseas, and then used against local populations, the consequences are catastrophic ; whether it is the strengthening of an insurgency, cancelling exercises, damaging relations with vital allies, or the world simply believing US troops are typified by a “sick and retarded bloodthirsty American soldier who has no respect at all from human life.”
It may be easy to dismiss these as isolated incidents, or the actions of a few sick individuals, or not part of a pattern. However, this is denial at its worst. Consider what some of our closeted transgender service members in SPARTA have overheard fellow soldiers saying about the Jennifer Laude murder:
“I would have killed it too.”
“You can hardly blame somebody who was sexually assaulted for having a violent reaction to it.” (Implying that finding out someone you have had sex with is transgender justifies killing them)
“The last thing we need is more training.”
“He could have just slugged it and gotten away with it.”
“That’s awesome. (that the trans woman was murdered) So it’s like transgendered since no one knows what the hell it is.”
These statements came from individuals who will be sent downrange under arms. Soon.
The culture and policies of the DoD are broken when it comes to gender, and as a result directly endanger vital US national interests. Failure to act swiftly and definitively to address these issues is a dereliction of duty. Specific, immediate policy steps that address these issues include:
- Recognize that attitudes hostile towards women and LGBT service members are interrelated
- Recognize that when such attitudes come in contact with foreign populations the results are often catastrophic to strategic US interests
- Take the decision whether to prosecute sexual assaults out of the hands of unit commanders
- Expedite the opening of all combat arms positions to women
- Enhance protections / options for individuals who report sexual assault or harassment
- Hold individuals up the chain of command accountable for climates permissive of
- Adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the MEO policy
- Beginning the review of the medical policy government transgender service members immediately
- Place a moratorium on the administrative separation of transgender service members while the review is being conducted
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Photo: Flickr/The U.S. Army