01 February 2010
The Lonely Soldier by Helen Benedict
Book for last week was The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq
I wasn't sure what the make of this one at first. The author interviewed women who served in Iraq and discussed their experiences in the military. She focused on five women in particular, three who joined prior to 9/11 and 2 who joined after. All are enlisted soldiers, two are NCOs.
The book discusses an important issue that does not get enough attention, which is sexual harassment and assault within the military. This issue is often swept under the rug by the military and ignored by the media. Despite being a integral part of the armed forces, women still face a hostile institutional structure that can be detrimental to their careers. Despite the gains that have been made, women are still considered inferior to men, as established by law that women cannot serve in combat roles.
Benedict points out that the demeaning language and attitudes towards women begin in boot camp. She also points out the disparity in the images put forth by the Army, noting in their websites and brochures, women are represented in pictures beside Army Values such as loyalty, but not one is included next values like honor, courage, and commitment. Women have to prove themselves as soldiers to the men. In their attempts to do this, the often lose parts of their identity, seeking to be tough, and conducting themselves in a way that will not make them stand out. Benedict quotes all of her interview subjects as being in agreement that men give female soldiers three roles to fill, that of ho, bitch, or dyke. Having to alter their personalities, habits, and even the way they walk to fit into this type of hostile environment makes readjustment to the civilian world particularly difficult for women.
Benedict sites pervasive sexual harassment and assault as reasons why women have higher rates of PTSD in Iraq. Depending on their unit and job, women often find themselves isolated in Iraq, perhaps being the only female among 36, 60, or 100 men. The women she interviews do not find the bond that so many others find amongst their comrades in arms at war. Instead, they found themselves undermined, objectified, and humiliated at almost every turn. They found themselves traumatized not only by the war, but by the very men who were supposed to have their backs. Incidents of sexual assault and rape are not reported nearly as often as in the civilian world, and only about 8% of such crimes are prosecuted, compared to 40% in civilian life.
The stories these women relay are heart wrenching, infuriating, and troubling to say the least.
At this point the data the book uses are a little dated, focusing primarily on the time period between 1999-2006. I have to hope that things have improved in the time since the book was published.
Each of these issues is real- especially those regarding a misogynist military culture- and must be addressed by the military, and if not the military, then by Congress. However, I am left with a few lingering thoughts. It is hard to know if the horrible experiences the 5 women in the book have are as common as Benedict makes it seem. When she briefly discusses where she met women veterans to interview, she discusses finding them at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against the War and Veteran's for Peace meetings. I say that not because these women should be judged for being members of these groups, but because it may have squed Benedict's sample of female veterans.
Benedict does make some great points about what must be done for our women veterans, especially those who have served in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.
Among those I find to be particularly sound are:
1.) "Women have always been met with hostility when they first tried to enter male domains, whether as voters or police officers, firefighters or politicians, and the answer has never been to give up, but to stay and fight for reform until the culture changes and accepts them (224)."
2.) Stop restricting the jobs women can do in the military. The arguments are antiquated and women have proven in Iraq that they can do the job. Combat support roles have become combat roles as women follow infantry units door to door, search and engage targets, guard prisoners, serve as gunners in ground convoys and in the air, guard checkpoints, and sit in FOBs that are mortared and bombed. Recognize women for the courageous job that they are doing right beside their male counterparts. This will also help female veterans when they return home. No woman who has served should be treated like a second class veteran. No woman should have her war stories denied and ignored because she has a ponytail instead of a high and tight.
3.) End official antipathy toward women (225).
4.) Distribute women more evenly. No women should serve alone with all male platoons, for it leaves them isolated and vulnerable to assault (226).
5.) Improve training in the prevention and understanding of sexual assault for all recruits, enlisted personnel, and officers; Reform military handling of sexual abuse
6.) Provide better services to female veterans returning from war. They have different needs than their male counterparts and should receive the same level of service for them.
I agree with Benedict's closing lines:
"At least 160,500 women have served in Iraq by now, risking their lives, limbs, and well-being, as they will again in future wars. It is wrong for us as a nation to ask women to do this and then treat them as inferior to men."