Confronting Militarism And Patriarchy-The Take Away From The Congressional Hearings On Sexual Assault In The Ranks

The decision last week by both houses of Congress not to consider measures that would remove absolute control over the prosecution of sexual assault cases in the military from the chain of command sends a clear signal that preserving the system of power over that our military both depends upon and upholds is far more important than actually protecting the citizens of this country who serve in its ranks from attacks by those who supposedly have their backs. While disappointing, it is hardly surprising. After days of grueling hearings, in the end the congressional status quo effectively bitch slapped those who dared question how this country maintains its power structure.*

As Jason Easley writes,

The Senate Armed Services Committee had a chance to stand up for victims. They could have put our country on the path to joining allies Israel, Great Britain, Australia, Canada by investigating sexual assault cases outside of the military. They could have stood up the people who are victimized by sexual predators while serving their country. Seventeen senators could have, should have, but they didn't.Instead, Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) replaced Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's plan with his own. The Levin plan is back by Defense Secretary Hagel, and would keep the military in charge of prosecuting sexual assaults. Sen. Levin said, "We need to change some things. We can do some things much better. We have to. But I think we've got to be very careful when we talk about taking the command structure out of this process."

It doesn't seem to have occurred to Sen. Levin that many of these sexual assaults are being committed by people within his precious chain of command. It didn't matter to the Armed Services Committee that Gillibrand's legislation has bipartisan group of 27 cosponsors. For Sen. Levin and 16 other members of the committee, all that mattered was protecting the status quo. If they have to protect thousands of rapists within the military to do so, so be it.

If we are ever to truly stem this epidemic it is crucial to understand that sexual assault in our own ranks is not a stand alone issue, it is just one of many examples of military sexual trauma and abuse that has always taken place at the hands of military forces and continues to do so around the globe today. In a report for Women Under Siege, Kerry K. Patterson writes that,

Saran Keita Diakite painted a dismal reality for women in Mali in a speech she gave to the UN Security Council in April. As Diakite, a lawyer and president of the Malian branch of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, explained: "The Islamists perform religious marriages in order to escape the clutches of international criminal justice."...

..."They carry out a form of 'marriage' so that, at night, you can be treated as a sexual slave," Diakite said. "During the day, you are there to serve tea to the men and attend to their every need. This is why I always say that what's happened in Mali is unprecedented."...

...Militant groups in many conflicts--among them Burma, Cambodia, Rwanda, Liberia, Uganda, and Sierra Leone --have practiced systemic sexual enslavement of women and girls under the guise of "marriage."...

...Beyond forced marriages, conflict also can lead to "survival marriages," which appear to be occurring in Syria and within refugee areas in surrounding countries.

The economic realities of life in the Syrian refugee camps and communities are such that parents are often complicit in the marriage of underage girls, literally selling their daughters into wedlock--sometimes to foreign men--in the hopes of protecting them from a worse fate, whether that is poverty or rape.

In addition, UNIFEM notes that women continue to be left out of the resolution of conflict and sexual trauma is rarely discussed in peace negotiations or addressed in treaties:

A thorough and systematic review of 585 peace agreements that have resulted from 102 peace processes in the last two decades, revealed that since 1990, only 92 peace agreements (16 percent) have contained at least one reference to women or gender...

...Ten years after the adoption of resolution 1325 (2000), gender-blind peace agreements are still the norm, rather than the exception. Many peace accords include a general equality clause and non-specific references to human rights guarantees and international treaties, but rarely mention quotas or other special measures to reverse women's exclusion from decision-making, nor allocate responsibility to monitor that equality is indeed achieved. Sexual violence is also often absent from accords, even in conflicts where widespread sexual violence has been employed as a tactic of warfare.

As disheartening as it is that Congress is unlikely to stand up to challenging the sanctity of the concept of an inviolate chain of command, addressing these issues has been a powerful shift in the national dialog and that should give us hope because it opens up the possibility of finally addressing power over (embodied by the concept of chain of command and good order) and patriarchal structures that are the systemic root cause of sexual assault and harassment in the ranks.

Feminist theologian Carol P. Christ points out that,

Rape is not something that "just happens" in the military. It is an inevitable product of military training. Unless and until we understand this and change the way soldiers are trained, we will never be able to stop rape in the US military or any other military system.

And offers this perspective on patriarchy and violent domination,

Patriarchy is a system of male dominance, rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence, sanctified by religious symbols, in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality, with the intent of passing property to male heirs, and in which men who are heroes of war are told to kill men, and are permitted to rape women, to seize land and treasures, to exploit resources, and to own or otherwise dominate conquered people.*...

...The system I am defining as patriarchy is a system of domination enforced through violence and the threat of violence. It is a system developed and controlled by powerful men, in which women, children, other men, and nature itself are dominated. Let me say at the outset that I do not believe that it is in the "nature" of "men" to dominate through violence. Patriarchy is a system that originated in history, which means that it is neither eternal nor inevitable.

Despite years of lipservice and inaction, Congress has finally been challenged to confront our national complicity in perpetuating the patriarchal culture of impunity implicit in militarism that allows and depends on sexual violence and intimidation. And that is a huge accomplishment.



1. Lest there be any notion that the military truly understands that the system needs to change, there is a continuing, constant stream of evidence to the contrary.

As Stars and Stripes reported last week,

Two defendants in military sexual assault cases cannot be punitively discharged, if found guilty, because of "unlawful command influence" derived from comments made by President Barack Obama, a judge ruled in a Hawaii military court this week.

Navy Judge Cmdr. Marcus Fulton ruled during pretrial hearings in two sexual assault cases -- U.S. vs. Johnson and U.S. vs. Fuentes -- that comments made by Obama as commander in chief would unduly influence any potential sentencing, according to a court documents obtained by Stars and Stripes.

And last Thursday, as we learned that Congress would not stand up to the chain of command to defend sexual assault victims, the Washington Post published an opinion piece by Elizabeth Robbins, a lieutenant colonel in the Army that squarely placed part of the blame for the epidemic of sexual assault on the victims for not properly taking precautions not to be attacked and suggesting that alcohol is to blame in large part for the problem in what she repeatedly refers to as the military "brotherhood".

This does not excuse perpetrators, nor does it mean that women in the military are destined to be victims. In most situations, warriors can avoid becoming sexual assault statistics by exercising good judgment. They can drink lightly or not at all. They can always attend social functions with a friend committed to look after them (and vice versa). Above all, they can avoid reaching a stage at which they may pass out.

Let's be very clear-if the military has an alcohol problem, they should deal with it and it may well be a contributing factor, but it is not the cause and victims should never be blamed. The notion of brotherhood that Robbins holds in such high regard is however at the root of this systemic problem. Also worth noting, the San Antonio Express-News points out that victim intimidation and shaming continue to be an integral part of the military's very broken system of prosecution.

2. The costs of the military's inability to bring the epidemic under control are high,

According to the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), the VA spent nearly $872 million on treatment related to military sexual trauma in 2010 (the last year in which complete data is available). However, these are not the only costs associated with MST; there is a human cost as well.

More than 85,000 veterans sought treatment last year in connection with military sexual trauma, according to an article by the Associated Press. What this means is that above and beyond the cases reported this year or last year, thousands of veterans from decades past are still trying to come to grips with the abuse they suffered while serving...

...On the other end of the financial spectrum is the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program. With a rather paltry budget of just $14 million, this is the program that is supposed to prevent sexual assault in the military, but is clearly failing.


*The New York Times mirrored the slap down of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in particular, with these belittling and demeaning characterizations,

Mr. Levin's decision to support military brass in their resistance to Ms. Gillibrand's proposal sets up a confrontation between a long-serving chairman of the committee with strong ties to the armed forces and a relatively new female member -- one of a record seven women serving on the committee -- who has made sexual assault in the military a signature issue.


Ms. Gillibrand, who is among the most savvy of Senate Democrats in identifying attention-grabbing policy issues, attached herself to the effort last August and then oversaw in March the first Senate hearing in nearly a decade on the problem of sexual assaults in the military.

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