Dangerous Liaisons: Sex and the Military in the Age of Obama

The Academy Award-nominated documentary The Invisible War examines the scourge of sexual assault in the modern American military.  As presented by the New America Foundation (NAF) at Washington, D.C.'s E Street Theater at a February 13, 2013, screening and panel discussion, appropriately combatting such horrific crimes has become a serious concern for America's defenders.  Analysis of The Invisible War and its underlying subject matter, though, calls into question the propriety of recent defense policy changes eliminating military exclusions of homosexuals and opening up female ground combat positions.

The Invisible War's subject matter has reached disturbing proportions.  One of the web pages on the film website states that "20% of all active-duty female soldiers are sexually assaulted."  "Today," as another film webpage declares, "a woman serving in Iraq or Afghanistan is more likely to be raped by a fellow service member than to be killed in the line of fire."  According to Army statistics, the number of sexual assaults has only increased in recent years.  As reported by the 2012 report Army 2020: Generating Health and Discipline in the Force ahead of the Strategic Reset or Goldbook (page 121), across the fiscal years (FY) 2006-2011, active-duty Army sex crimes have increased 28%.  A "marked increase in violent sex crimes" of 97% (665 in FY 2006 to 1,313 in FY 2011) "fueled" this rise.

As Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) stated at the screening's subsequent panel discussion, sexual assault in military not only affects women, but is a "male issue" as well.  As the Department of Defense (DOD)'s 2010 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of the Active Duty Members reports in its executive summary, in 2010, 4.4% of female and 0.9% of male service personnel "indicated experiencing unwanted sexual contact" in the last year.  In absolute terms of a predominately male military, such percentages amount to about 10,000 male and 9,000 female sex-offense victims per year.

Indeed, the FY 2011 Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military (Exhibit 15) found that 12% of all victims in completed investigations of unrestricted reports of sexual assault for that year were male.  Similarly, the subjects investigated in these reports (Exhibit 18) were 89% male and only 2% female (9% were unidentified).  The almost exclusively male gender of sexual perpetrators coupled with the 12% of victims who are male corroborates with previous research of Peter Sprigg from the conservative Family Research Council (FRC) documenting disproportionately large numbers of military homosexual assaults even before the opening of the military to homosexuals.  Compared to homosexual groups themselves admitting that a surveyed 2.8% of men and 1.4% of women considered themselves homo- or bisexual, Sprigg's review of case synopses found that 8.2% of all 1,643 FY 2009 military sexual assault reports were homosexual in nature.  The 2011 DOD numbers suggest, as Sprigg's May 2010 report predicted, that the military homosexual policy change has only made the problem of homosexual assault worse.

For all of its significance, homosexual assault receives little mention in The Invisible War.  Navy veteran Brian Lewis, raped in 2000 by a senior non-commissioned officer, has complained that the 99-minute movie devotes only about five minutes to male victims, including a 10-second soundbite from Lewis himself.  Lewis, who serves on the board of an advocacy organization for military sexual assault victims, Protect Our Defenders, considers this inadequate for the 56% of victims who are men.  The 20-year Air Force veteran Michael Matthews, who talks in the movie about his 1974 gang rape by three fellow airmen, condemns The Invisible War director Kirby Dick for having "abandoned" male victims with a biased movie and promotional measures including female victim-only film screenings.

Dick previously told NBC interviewers that he agrees with Matthews and others that their country has "kept in the shadows" male military assault victims, yet he defended a conscious film production decision to focus on female victims.  In a not fully elaborated analysis, Dick explained that female victims presented a "discussion that people would start to have" and offered an "entry point" into the issue.  For the film's "essential goal" of changing policy "so that all men and women are protected in the military," Dick considered it efficacious that "women would get the discussion going and push the military to make the change for everyone."

Irrespective of male victims, the tales told by The Invisible War's women are deeply disturbing.  Ariana Klay, a former officer of the Marines Corps who served in Iraq before suffering a gang rape while stationed at the venerable Marine Barracks Washington, D.C. (Eighth and I), describes in the film a military culture in which women are "objects for men to f---."  Klay's sentiments accord in a certain sense with an analyst quoted in the film describing, not surprisingly, a preponderance of "heavily masculine men" in the military. 

Reflecting upon her experience, Klay states that she could "not in good faith" encourage any woman to join the military.  Kori Cioca, a woman whose brutal rape while enlisted in the Coast Guard left her unable to eat solid food due to an injured jaw, expresses similar sentiments in the film.  The film also shows how Cioca now carries a knife for protection along with her crucifix.

The film notes that properly investigating such assaults presents various problems.  Many individuals choose not to report a sexual assault because the person designated to receive the assault report is a friend of the rapist or is the rapist himself.  As one man stated in the film, meanwhile, men sometimes do not report their rapes in order not to be called a "buddy f---er", a phenomenon that might not disappear even after the change in the military's policy on homosexuality.

Commanding officers previously charged under recently retracted policies with deciding whether to initiate a criminal investigation also showed disinterest.  As former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy stated at the panel, for a commander, the "last thing you want to do is call in a rape."  With respect to future homosexual rapes, Sprigg worries that with homosexuals becoming a "protected class within the military, victims will be afraid to report incidents of homosexual assault and commanders will be afraid to punish them" in order to avoid accusations of "homophobia."

On the other hand, the Goldbook (page 128) reports that, reflecting rape allegations studied in civilian society, 27% of Army rape allegations in FY 2006-2011 proved unfounded.  Drawing on existing research, the Goldbook cited as motives for false rape allegations "(1) a need for an alibi to compensate for problems arising from consensual sex, (2) in retribution for a perceived wrong such as rejection or betrayal, and (3) to satisfy a need for attention or other material gain." 

How the introduction of women into ground combat will alleviate in general such problems or, in particular, avoid the introduction of these issues into combat units is a troubling question.  Writing in the Huffington Post, The Invisible War producers Amy Ziering and Jennifer Siebel Newsom see in a "proliferation of assaults" precisely the "need to add more women to our military ranks, not less."  "Numerous sociological studies," they argue, "have demonstrated that once any minority reaches a certain critical mass, it ceases to be as easily marginalized, discriminated against and victimized."

Yet a longstanding opponent of women in combat and homosexuals in the military, the Center for Military Readiness (CMR), noted on January 29, 2013, that such faulty analysis has justified ever more exposure of women to combat since the 1991 Tailhook scandal.  "Women are as close to the fight as they can be," writes CMR, "but rates of sexual assault and abuse are soaring with no end in sight."  Moreover, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey's own reference to a "critical mass" of women in combat units entails a 10-15% cohort that "cannot be met with a few exceptional women[,]" but rather will require a watering down of physical standards.

Aside from personal harm, issues such as sexual assaults (or false claims thereof) surrounding homosexuals and women in combat raise several concerns about the military as an organization.  One analyst in The Invisible War analogizes military sexual assault to "incest in the family" among a "band of brothers and sisters." 

This modern paraphrase of the traditional military family metaphor only highlights why recent defense policy changes are so problematic.  Homosexuality in the military entails that certain of its "brothers" and "sisters" will actually have same-sex attractions for each other.  Not only do such issues surrounding sexual attraction (including assault) call into question unit cohesion, but homosexuality raises moral questions along with actual incest.  Female warriors would similarly introduce heterosexual tensions into frontline combat units while raising various concerns analyzed by CMR of "sisters" actually accompanying their "brothers" into battle's horrors.  A 1950s United States government film on women in the military excerpted by The Invisible War shows just how times have changed since the government exhorted serving women to show "feminine grace."  Yet if Dick's focus on female victims for The Invisible War is any indication, such serious concerns are not receiving the objective analysis they deserve.

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