Barbara Gove served as a Marine at Parris Island and Cherry Point in the mid-nineteen-fifties. Decades later, she was interviewed for the University of North Carolina-Greensboro's Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project. “Do you think they were not as tough on the women entering the service?” she was asked. “Oh no, they were tough,” Gove said.
They were tough on the women. But when you even lived up to their specifications, they still were inconsiderate. There were two women at Cherry Point who got raped. One girl hung herself.
There was a lot that went on. That's the part that I don't really remember too much about.
There is a lot that isn't remembered—whether out of self-protection, wishful thinking, neglect, or obliviousness—about the service of American women in the military. This is particularly true when it comes to sexual assault perpetrated within the armed forces.
At a press conference on Monday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced a new plan for addressing these crimes. The measures include a directive that all complaints be sent to an officer at the level of a colonel or Navy captain; making sure that there is a record of disciplinary proceedings that is not hidden away; attempts at prevention, with early training, and responsiveness, with hotlines and a dedicated officer; and holding commanders accountable. The Pentagon can order some of these steps; Congress needs to approve others, like establishing special-victims units for each service. It should do so as soon as is practical.
Any discussion of what these crimes mean should start with some fixed points. Women have taken part in America's wars from our earliest days, in diverse roles and in all services. (“Marinettes” helped win the First World War.) Women are not optional—they never have been, and they especially aren't now.
Our all-volunteer military would simply be unsustainable without women: close to fifteen per cent of our active-duty forces are women, including fifteen per cent of the National Guard, and almost twenty per cent of the reserves. (Panetta said this explicitly: “The problem is that sexual assault remains a disincentive for many to become a part of the United States military.”)
More than three thousand of those women reported last year that other service members had sexually assaulted them. The Pentagon estimates that, since only a fraction of these crimes are reported, that there may actually have been nineteen thousand attacks. “We realize that the crime of sexual assault erodes the very fabric of our profession. Our profession is built on trust and this particular crime erodes that trust.” It is not only a matter of trust between soldiers. Civilians send soldiers into these theatres, and rates of assault at this level represent a breach of faith—one that is, in essence, no different from recklessly deploying an Army into an unsustainable fight.
This would be an urgent problem in peacetime; it is worse when women, like all service members, have spent years dealing with multiple deployments. They wear a person down, in the best of circumstances, and can be isolating, or devastating. Battlefield concerns also distract unit commanders, making the shift to higher-ranking officers particularly important.
Women are theoretically barred from combat roles, but that distinction has become increasingly arcane. Women are in combat. And in addition to P.T.S.D., there is M.S.T., or military sexual trauma. The Service Women's Action Network, an advocacy group, notes that the term shouldn't be used as a euphemism—that rape should be called rape, and not, like so much in military life, acronymized into oblivion. But the particular consequences of sexual assault need to be named somehow, and recognized. (Men can also be victims of sexual assault.)
Advocacy groups like SWAN are worth mentioning because, as is often the case, the military did not get to this point on its own. It took pressure from women in the ranks, in politics, and in civilian life. This story is also a reminder of why that's necessary—and why exploring the history of women in the military is, too. For many women, service was a defining, rewarding, even liberating experience, despite any hardship. The majority, thankfully, were never the victims of sexual assault. None of them ever should be.
Historical perspective also helps guard against category confusion. At Panetta's press conference, the first question was not about sexual-assault measures but about just what happened at a hotel in Cartagena, Colombia, with eleven Secret Service agents, nine military men, and about twenty prostitutes.
Prostitution and sexual assault are not the same thing; a seaside hotel is not a U.S. military base. (That said, there has probably been too little discussion of how and whether the sexual commerce that, historically, has often accompanied armies, to corrosive effect, has figured in our latest long wars. There is also the problem of rape as a weapon of war, seen in awful dimensions in Africa's wars today.) What's telling is the sense of inevitability that often accompanies the discussion of both: the notion that this is just what happens when young men—in particular, young men with guns—are sent to strange and dangerous places. Or, with an even lazier sense of defeatism: this is what happens when you send men and women there together.
But why should it be? Nothing in our history warrants that level of fatalism. If women's involvement in our wars—in our common defense—is a constant, so is the way their roles changed. Where there were once Marinettes, there are now Marine woman generals. Last year, Brigadier General Loretta Reynolds took over the command at Parris Island, where Barbara Gove served. The military can be a place where the intractable is overcome—we saw that in the realm of race, and there is every sign that we are seeing it again now that gay and lesbian service members don't have to lie about who they are. “We must send the signal that this is not a problem we are going to ignore,” Panetta said—and also that it's a battle we can win.