Women in the US military – uncomfortable power

Last week saw the lifting of the ban on women in combat in the US military.  How will this change the dynamics within and perceptions of the American military, and will it help reduce the current epidemic levels of sexual harassment and sexual assault within the armed forces?

Women soldiers in a military line-up. Photo: Women's eNews

Last month actress Jessica Chastain won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Maya, an intelligence officer on the ‘hunt’ for Bin Laden, in Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty.  The Hollywood trope of the strong, independent female military or intelligence personnel that has emerged as a key figure of America’s cultural response to its war on terror decade has been read by anti-racist feminists such as Zillah Eisenstein as articulating a kind of “imperial feminism” in which a handful of elite women join the ranks of male power to help enact the same structures of violence and oppression.

Away from the cinema, the role of women in the American military is also fraught with power-plays and interlocking legacies of brutality.  Last week saw the historic decision to lift the ban on women in combat, meaning that women can now hold all the positions men can and rise through the military ranks accordingly.  Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban put in place in 1994, and it was praised by President Obama as both a move towards greater equality and an act that would make the armed forces ‘even stronger’.

For women serving in the American military this is welcome news: already in harm’s way, the new legal framing of servicewomen’s’ role in the military will allow them to claim their pay-grade and advance through the ranks via positions that require combat experience.  For while women were not classified as able to serve in ‘combat’ roles, over 130 female soldiers have died while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq since these conflicts began a decade ago – with the expansion of the military (and shrinking of the domestic job market) women have helped fill the ranks of American armed forces, with over 200,000 women serving in the last ten years. 

With female soldiers already risking their lives, the lack of recognition and ability to progress through the ranks that the combat ban imposed arguably harmed rather than protected female soldiers in reality. In particular, prior to the lifting of the ban some female soldiers returning home from tours of duty with PTSD and other problems related to military life were being turned away from claiming benefits on the grounds that they were not officially in combat.

Last week’s decision to lift the ban builds upon recent work to remove barriers for women serving in combat.  In February of last year there was a changing of the restrictions which opened up almost 15,000 jobs to women.  And just before the ban was lifted, ACLU began a case last month against the Department of Defence on behalf of four female soldiers who believed the restrictions on them serving on the front lines constituted discrimination.

This opening of combat roles for women can also be situated as part of the broader opening of the military, most notably in the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ last year, which allowed openly gay men and women to serve in the military.  Alongside other diversity initiatives, the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal and Panetta’s decision to allow women to serve in combat roles can be welcomed as a move towards a more balanced and diverse military, including the higher echelons which remain predominantly white and male. (Although, as Zillah Eisenstein would argue, internal diversity within an institution of military-imperialism is hardly the pinnacle of social justice).

There is a second, more practical reason why the lifting of the ban on women in combat has been widely welcomed – the hope that it will initiate an institutional shift in the armed forces that will change the current prevalence of sexual violence within the institution itself.  As serving in ground combat units is a necessary step for promotion to many of the higher military posts, the ‘right to serve’ is in some sense a ‘right to be promoted’, a blow to the institution’s glass ceiling.  This is significant as the current power dynamic of females in subordinate positions and men in more senior positions underpins much of the sexual harassment and sexual abuse that continues to plague the military. 

The shocking scale of sexual abuse in the military has come to the fore in recent years, through specific cases such as the Lackland Air Force Base sexual abuse scandal and broader reports.  Women in the US military are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted as civilian American women, with one third of women saying they have experienced a rape or assault while serving – 3,158 cases were reported in 2010, with the real numbers likely to be higher given the challenges of reporting an assault.  Reporting an assault is highly fraught, as there are serious structural problems relating to confidentiality within the organisation – the two options of whether to report the assault as an unrestricted report (which involves military law enforcement) or a restricted report (where the complaint is made confidentially without initiating an investigation) in reality complicates whether the survivor of an assault still receives medical care.  In reality, unrestricted reporting can mean a survivor either does not receive medical care and counselling or loses their anonymity in the process. 

Although the institution implemented an overarching sexual abuse policy in 2005, standards and procedures still vary widely, and with notable gaps, between branches and within bases.  This is complicated further by the fact that many fear retaliation if they report the assault.  Moreover, a spokesperson for Protect Our Defenders has noted how if someone in the military is sexually assaulted “you have to report it to your boss and they decide whether it will go forward.  Your commander has the ultimate authority.  But according to studies, one in four people assaulted report that their assault happened within their chain of command.”

Recent high-profile cases where those who have been sexually assaulted by those in more senior positions and have also had their career threatened if they try to report it build the picture that sexual abuse victims, most often in the most subordinate positions in the institution, are penned in by threats to their career and future safety. This is enhanced by how all-encompassing and enclosed military life is for those within the institution, meaning those who experience a sexual assault have no-one to turn to if their superiors and colleagues turn on them.  There are chilling testimonies of women who attempted suicide after their rape became squadron gossip, with name-callings of ‘whore’, ‘slut’ and ‘liar’.

The decision to allow women to serve in combat positions, when framed as an effective ‘right to be promoted’, can be seen as a positive step towards crumbling the hierarchy in which senior positions are occupied predominantly by men, and those with authority within these senior positions yield significant power over the lives of their subordinates.  Panetta himself acknowledged that, alongside moving victims away from their assailants and providing more supportive special victims units, moving women into ground combat units is a crucial step in eroding the current hierarchies and culture that perpetuate the epidemic of sexual abuse.  Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has similarly acknowledged that the division, until now, of combat roles of gender lines has played into a kind of institutional hyper-masculinity, saying “when you have one part of the population that’s designated as warriors and another part of the population that’s designated as something else, I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology that, in some cases, led to that environment [of sexual abuse].”

To return to Zillah Eisenstein’s critique of ‘imperial feminism’, this step forward – which it undoubtedly is, both in terms of recognising the combat situations women already face in reality and in terms of the benefits of the ‘right to promotion’ –also aligns with the continuing militarisation of American society.  As the recession lumbers on, the move to permitting women to serve in combat roles will open up tens of thousands of jobs, tempting for those struggling to find work.  It’s worth bearing in mind the historical precedents of female advancement in the military, notably Israel, where the early incorporation of women into the armed forces was framed in narratives of ‘female liberation’ whilst in reality being spurred less by the desire to empower women than the logic of the hyper-militarised state.  And then there is the issue evaded by those who welcomed the lifting of the ban as a mean to combatting sexual abuse within the military – what about the sexual abuse committed by American military members on civilians caught in war?

The lifting of the ban on women in combat, while the American military continues to make its presence forcefully felt overseas, feels a little like Zero Dark Thirty’s disquieting ambiguity – a softening within an institution, while the violence perpetuated by the institution itself thunders on as strong as ever.

About the author

Heather McRobie is a journalist, writer, and co-editor of openDemocracy 50.50. She is completing a PhD on the 2011 Egyptian revolution and holds an MA focusing on Balkan studies. Her latest book Literary Freedom: a Cultural Right to Literature was published in December 2013.  Follow her on twitter @heathermcrobie