From the dawn of recorded history, humans have been making war and rape has been part of it.
In ancient Greece, the rape of a woman was considered a property crime; that is, a crime against her father, husband, or master. But in war, rape was socially acceptable and the women of conquered lands were considered legitimate spoils to be made into wives, slaves, or concubines. Sexual violence in war remained rampant and only rarely forbidden over the thousands of years of conflict that followed. While men were sexually victimized in war, more often when men were beaten, women were beaten and raped; when men were captured and enslaved, women were captured, enslaved, and raped; when men were tortured and killed, women were raped, tortured, and killed.
On April 24, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued "General Orders No. 100: Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field," commonly called (after its author, Francis Lieber) the "Lieber Code." As the first modern laws of war, those orders were unequivocal in terms of sexual assault. "All wanton violence committed against persons in the invaded country" all rape, wounding, maiming, or killing of such inhabitants, are prohibited under the penalty of death, or such other severe punishment as may seem adequate for the gravity of the offense," reads the code. American soldiers have been formally prohibited from rape ever since, but from Germany to France, Vietnam to Iraq, U.S. troops have continued to sexually assault civilians in wartime. As more women have joined this country's armed forces, they've increasingly fallen victim to their male comrades as well.
Last year, after Vanessa Guillen, a 20-year-old Army specialist stationed at Fort Hood Army Base in Texas, was killed, a scathing official review found that "there was a permissive environment for sexual assault and sexual harassment."
But Fort Hood was no outlier. Wherever you find U.S. military personnel, you find sexual misconduct - at recruiting stations, boot camp, and the acclaimed academic bastions of the armed forces the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy at Annapolis; on bases in the United States and off them, too; in American cities and in foreign locales from Australia to the United Arab Emirates; in remote war zones and on ships at sea; among senior leadership and the rank and file; and against men and women, boys and girls, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and straight people.
Formal reports of sexual assaults by U.S. military personnel have steadily increased since 2006. But the available figures are known to be drastic undercounts. The Veterans Administration reports that 1 in 4 women in the armed forces experience military sexual trauma (MST) sexual assault or repeated threats of sexual harassment by fellow service members, while a 2016 meta-analysis of 69 studies to determine the prevalence of the assault of service members by their peers concluded that 38.4% of female military personnel and veterans are survivors.
Today, TomDispatch regular Andrea Mazzarino examines the military - and the military-justice system - that has allowed sexual assault to flourish decade after decade and produced just such a dismal record. She also offers a glimmer of hope that, however modest, long-overdue reform when it comes to how sexual assaults are investigated and prosecuted within the military is finally in reach. Nick Turse
Changing the Way the Military Handles Sexual Assault Or How Not to Leave the Fox Guarding the Henhouse
Given the more than 60 Democratic and Republican votes lined up, the Senate is poised to move forward with a new bill that would change the way the military handles sexual assault and other felony crimes by service members. Sponsored by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Joni Ernst (R-IA), the new law would assign decision-making on sexual-assault cases and a host of other felonies, including some hate crimes, to a specially trained team of uniformed prosecutors. While the bill will indeed inch the military away from its antiquated practice of allowing commanders to decide whether to prosecute their own officers and soldiers on sexual-assault allegations, if baffles me that it's still allowed to handle its own violent crimes rather than having them dealt with through our criminal justice system.
Why should our troops enjoy such protected status, as though they exist in a separate reality from the rest of society? Arguably, in these years, the face of America has indeed been militarized, whether we like it or not. After all, we've just lived through two decades of endless war, American-style, in the process wasting significantly more than $6.4 trillion dollars, more than 7,000 uniformed lives, and scores of health- and safety-related opportunity costs.
Meanwhile, it's taken years for the public and members of Congress to begin to recognize that it matters how the military treats its own and the civilians with whom they interact. (After all, many felonies committed by such personnel against civilians, at home and abroad, are prosecuted within the military-justice system.) That Congress has taken so long to support even such a timid bill in a bipartisan fashion and that few think to question whether felonies committed by American soldiers should be prosecuted within the military, suggests one thing: that we're a long, long way from taking responsibility for those who kill, maim, and rape in all our names.
I'm a military spouse. My husband has been a U.S. Navy officer for 18 years. During the decade we've been together, he's served on two different submarines and in three Department of Defense and other federal staff jobs in Washington.
In many ways, our family has been very fortunate. We have dual incomes that offer us privileges the majority of Americans, let alone military families, don't have, including being able to seek healthcare providers outside the military's decrepit health system. All this is just my way of saying that when I critique the military and my experiences in it, keep in mind that others have suffered so much more than my family.
The Military Criminal Justice System
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