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Lackland Air Force sexual abuse: glimpse of the ‘real’ scandal of the US military

What can we learn about militarised ideas of gender from the Lackland Air Force scandal? Military inquiries focus on the individual perpetrators but fail to address deep-rooted gendered practices in military basic training.

Julia Welland
5 September 2012

Considered by many as the biggest sexual abuse scandal to hit the US military in over a decade, on July 20, 2012, Staff Sgt Luis Walker, an air force instructor at Lackland Air Force base in Texas, one of the busiest military training centres in the US, was found guilty by military court of all 28 charges brought against him. These charges included rape, aggravated sexual contact, and multiple counts of aggravated sexual assault. The following day he was sentenced to twenty years in prison. With fifteen Lackland instructors under investigation, six already charged, and the review by a two-star general into the case having been expanded to include three other Air Force training branches, basic training within the US Air Force has been rocked by the case. In upping the sacle of the review, Major General Leonard A. Patrick, commander of the Second Air Force, which oversees basic training, said in an interview, “ [w]e’re not satisfied that this one unit is all there is. We want to assure ourselves through a disciplined approach that we’ve caught everything or everyone involved in this kind of behavior.”

However, perhaps the bigger, or ‘real’, sexual abuse scandal, and what the US military’s ‘disciplined approach’ towards the Lackland Air Force base case fails to address, is just how pervasive sexual assault against women (and men) actually is within the military. In 2011, nearly 3,200 rapes and sexual assaults were reported in the US military. The defence department however, estimates a further 19,000 went unreported. Today, an American female soldier in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire, leading some female soldiers to state they are more afraid of coming under attack from their male colleagues than the enemy. Nor is this a recent phenomenon; during the Gulf War in the early 1990s, female servicewomen reported rapes and sexual assaults, while there has been stories of sexual violence by troops for as long as there has been war. In recent years, the issue has intermittently received media and public attention, and the US military claims to have a ‘zero tolerance’ policy toward sexual harassment and violence, but as Congressman Bruce Braley said to the Service Women’s Action Network (Swan) Conference earlier this year, “we keep talking and talking and nothing ever changes”. As a burgeoning feminist literature focused on gender and the military tells us however, this is a scandal that will continue to fail to be addressed until the military and wider public start asking questions about what assumptions of gender the military both relies on and re-enacts. And it is a scandal that will continue to take place until we start problematising the kind of masculinity produced through military doctrine and practices, taking seriously its implications.

Recent years have seen significant changes in military policy about who is allowed to join and what roles they are allowed to take up. Women currently serve in over 90% of all US army occupations, and earlier this year the Pentagon announced plans to open an estimated 14,000 additional military jobs to women, although women will remain barred from serving in roles that are deemed as ‘in combat’. Coming so close to Obama’s repeal of the controversial ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ law which allows gay and lesbian servicemembers to openly serve the US military, in law at least, makes it look less like the preserve of heterosexual manhood it was traditionally assumed to be.

But while women and homosexuals are now permitted entry to the hallowed identity category of ‘soldier’, to what extent has this shift in policy been replicated in a shift in military values and ideology? While basic training is by no means the sole ‘map’ of a soldier’s identity, as the popularly-assumed starting-point of a military career and the most overt indication that soldiers are indeed made rather than born, it is a good place to look for the ‘type’ of soldiers being produced. It is of course, also the central location of the Lackland Air Force scandal.

Contemporary practices of basic training are remarkably similar across most modern western nations. Authors writing on basic training – both gender theorists and former soldiers – detail the ways in which a recruit’s individuality and civilian identity is deconstructed in order to be replaced by a soldier-identity. Uniforms are issued, hair (in the case of men) shaved, and a collective existence introduced as recruits acclimatise to barrack living with its shared washing, sleeping and eating facilities. Such physical togetherness operates to begin to foster a sense of teamwork and esprit de corps. With a system of collective rewards and punishments, and relationships forged under arduous conditions, recruits begin to identify themselves as part of a distinct family or collectivity; one traditionally seen as a ‘warrior brotherhood'.

Military practices such as these however, do not take place in a gender-neutral, or genderless, vacuum. Prior to entering the military, recruits already possess narratives of gender – narratives intimately linking masculinity with violence and warfare, and femininity with passivity and peacefulness – moreover the practices themselves emerge in and through specific gendered assumptions. For example, in order to successfully complete the physically challenging and mentally tough formal practices of basic training, a recruit will have to demonstrate physical and mental endurance, aggression, and determination; characteristics that will all be marked as explicitly relating to manhood and masculinity. Recruits who fail to make the grade will face a variety of gendered insults, linking their inadequacies to their lack of masculinity, or rather, their femininity. In her exploration of basic training, Sandra Whitworth lists a selection of the insults a recruit will be exposed to during training including, “faggot”, “sissies”, “cunt”, “pussies” and sometimes simply “you woman” (Whitworth 2004: 156). In short, femininity, in the military context, is tied to weakness, ineffectiveness and failure. Working through simple binaries, masculinity and femininity provide the respective anchor points for positive and negative characteristics. A successful soldiering identity, to again quote Whitworth, must “deny all that is deemed feminine” (ibid.: 161-2).

Such denigration of femininity takes place within an environment that is aggressively heterosexual, and both numerically and ideologically dominated by men (at Lackland Air Force around one in five recruits are female, while nine out of ten instructors are male). In the UK military despite lifting the ban on homosexuals serving twelve years ago, the “high-testosterone environment” of the barracks remains, with its pin-ups and bragging of (hetero)sexual encounters. Women’s bodies here are not just viewed as weak and ineffective at what soldiering requires, but as highly sexualised - understood not as the subject of the soldiering self, but as an object for the (masculine) soldier’s pleasure and gaze.

What then happens when feminine bodies marked by these ideas of sexuality, weakness and difference come to occupy the very same locations and identity positions as those they are positioned in opposition to? When the very embodiment of everything men soldiers have been told to deny is training alongside them, sent on tours of duty, and awarded military medals, women soldiers like Monica Lin Brown who in 2008 became the first recipient of silver stars, America’s third-highest combat military decoration after saving the lives of fellow soldiers following a roadside bomb in Iraq? What is likely to begin to take place is the unravelling of the narratives and myths male recruits have been told about masculinity; a troubling of what – or rather who – they understand a soldier to be. It may be that these moments of ‘rupture’ of self-identity increase the possibility of rapes and sexual assaults. With their own sense of gendered self-identity rendered fragile, male soldiers may look to reassert their threatened militarised and masculine identity against bodies marked by the denigrated and hated femininity.

Troop-perpetrated sexual violence has, after all, existed for as long as there have been militaries and warfare – the rape of local women and girls by conquering male armies has a long documented history. However, while historically, such violence was projected externally towards the denigrated ‘others’ soldiers were taught to abhor (see the ways in which enemy troops and populations have been feminised in military rhetoric), today, greater numbers of these others are found amongst the ranks, and perhaps violence is now directed internally more frequently. This is not to suggest that the sexual assault of external others no longer takes place, as the 2006 gang-rape of Abeer Qasim Hamza by US troops attests to, nor that internal others, including many men, were not previously subjected to sexual violence, as Mic Hunter’s book, Honor Betrayed, details.

Of course by no means all men socialised through military norms and values during basic training will go on to engage in such violent activity. As cases of ‘whistleblowing’ have attested, there are servicemembers who actively seek to distance themselves from these violent encounters. However, to view these cases of rape and sexual assault as separate from the ways in which soldiers are produced is to ignore the continuum of violence that launches such acts; a continuum both in terms of the pervasiveness and severity of the violence. The degree of sexual assault within the military suggested in the figures noted above says more about the institution itself – and its values and ideologies – than the individual perpetrators. Pin-ups and gendered insults are the visible signs of an environment of casual sexism and banal denigration of the feminine. Misogyny is present in all these practices, albeit in differing extents and manifestations. It is through these everyday practices and assumptions that an environment is fostered where there is potential – at times, realised – for violent reassertions of the masculine soldiering self.

It is not enough to consider gender alone when seeking to explain this violence; complex power hierarchies will be at play, intersecting and interacting with gender. What can we learn about militarised ideas of sexuality from the Lackland Air Force scandal? What about race? Class? In what ways are these identity markers circulating and impacting on the experiences recruits have, and who risks being exposed to sexual violence?

Presently however, the military and the wider public are not asking these questions. Military inquiries focus on the individual perpetrators, court-martialing them, or merely reassigning to a different post – in the Lackland Air Force case, away from training duties. With the number of victims continuing to rise, this is clearly not enough. It is time to turn our attention towards not the individuals or the command structures, but the everyday practices, values and assumptions that make up the military. Practices, values and assumptions that are invariably gendered (and raced, sexualised, classed…), and that privilege the masculine at the expense of the feminine. It is time to start paying attention to the centrality of masculinity and femininity to militarised identities, and what is at stake when these are troubled or made fragile.  

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