Reality for Women in the U.S. Military

Rape in Uniform

by Li Onesto

Revolutionary Worker #886, December 8, 1996

Only 10 years ago, drill instructors in the Marines led training runs with chants like, "One, two, three four. Every night we pray for war. Five, six, seven, eight. Rape. Kill. Mutilate."

Slogans like this are no longer official policy. But thousands of women in the U.S. military are being sexually harassed, abused and raped.

When people in poor, Black and Latino neighborhoods talk about the police, stories come spilling out--everyone with a tale of brutality and murder. When you ask women in the U.S. military about sexual harassment and rape--they too, all have stories of great pain and injustice.

Recently, more than two dozen women have come forward to say they were harassed or raped at an army training center in Maryland. Several sergeants have been charged with the sexual abuse and rape of young women soldiers. One of them, accused of raping nine women, threatened to kill his victims if they told their superiors. After this story hit the news, 2,000 calls poured into a phone line set up by the Army. Some calls reported sexual abuse during World War 2.

The U.S. military ended separate branches for men and women soldiers in 1973, and the number of women soldiers has increased by 400 percent since then. Today, about 190,000 women are active-duty soldiers--about 13 percent of the total U.S. military force of 1.46 million. But the more women have been integrated into the U.S. military, the more they have been abused and punished for stepping out of traditional women's roles.

Many youth join the U.S. military hoping to get an education. Recruiters tell them it's a way out of the ghetto, a way to "see the world." The latest post-cold war pitch is that the U.S. armed forces are about "liberating" people in war-torn Bosnia or Central Africa. Some women think the army's a place they can prove themselves and be treated equally. But the U.S. military is not about giving people a chance in life. It's about protecting the domination of U.S. imperialism throughout the world.

There is evidence that many thousands of women in the U.S. military have been sexually harassed, assaulted and raped. In a recent Pentagon survey, half of the 47,000 female soldiers, sailors and fliers who responded said they were subjected in the last year to some form of sexual harassment or abuse, including rape.

Remember the infamous Tailhook incident in Las Vegas where civilian and Navy women were assaulted by Navy men? In an ugly display of male power and debauchery, Navy men ripped the women's clothes off and passed them over their heads, hand-to-hand. This was only the tip of the iceberg.

Most of the thousands of incidents of sexual harassment and assault in the military are never reported. And when women do report such crimes, things for them usually only get worse.

Sixty percent of the women who told the Pentagon survey that they had been abused said they did not make a formal complaint--in large part because they feared retaliation. Many of the women who've been harassed and abused in the military talk about how they felt powerless because they were being victimized by commanding officers--who they were supposed to obey and submit to 24 hours a day.

Case in point: Darlene Simmons was a Lieutenant in the Navy. As a legal officer aboard the USS Canopus, her duties included advising the command "on all matters and cases involving sexual harassment." But this didn't prevent her from being sexually harassed! After being persistently harassed by a lieutenant commander for six months, she decided to report his actions. The ship's commanding officer told Simmons not to mention her complaint to anyone else. The harassment resumed and Simmons continued to resist. The commander doing the harassing--who was in charge of approving all Simmons' work--wrote a memo criticizing her performance, and other bad reports started appearing in her records. Simmons decided to call the office of a senator for help. And when her superiors learned of this, they locked her up in a psychiatric unit for four days.

Soldiers found guilty of rape can be sentenced up to life in prison. But most rapists in the U.S. military aren't punished at all. In fact, many women in the military who've been raped--some of them brutally gang-raped for hours--report the despair and humiliation of taking their case to a military hearing where the men in charge are "buddies" of the rapist. Frequently, the rapist gets a slap on the hand, while the woman gets punished.

Dr. Kathie Larsen is a clinical psychologist who counsels female vets who've been sexually abused. Women have told her that deciding to go public would end their career in the military, nothing would be done to the men, and instead they would be blamed. In fact, of the 100 cases Dr. Larsen has worked on, only two were resolved with formal discipline of an assailant or harasser.

And then there is the long history of U.S. soldiers raping civilian women wherever they've been stationed around the world. Take the ugly history of U.S. GIs in Okinawa. In Kin Town alone, where 21,000 Marines are stationed: A 12-year-old schoolgirl was abducted and raped by three U.S. soldiers in September 1995. Four months earlier, a 24-year-old woman was beaten to death with a hammer by a U.S. soldier. In 1993, a soldier raped an Okinawan woman, then escaped while in the custody of U.S. military police. In 1985, a 40-year-old woman was abducted and raped by two soldiers. In 1975, two junior high school students going for a swim at the beach were stoned until they lost consciousness and were then raped by a Marine. The year before, a 17-year-old woman was gang-raped by U.S. soldiers. And during the Vietnam War, 17 women were murdered by military personnel who were on R&R leave in Okinawa.

Sexual harassment, abuse and rape is the violent assertion of male power over women. It is widespread in bourgeois society in general. And in the U.S. military, it is enforced and promoted even more by the gung-ho, rape-and-pillage mentality that is part of every imperialist army.


Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP, has pointed out that, "In a fundamental sense, an army is a concentration of the society it is fighting for--of the social and political relations, values, etc., that are dominant and characterize that society."

How does this apply to the U.S. armed forces?

The U.S. military serves U.S. imperialism. It fights to enforce the exploitation of the masses of people by a few. It fights to enforce the subjugation of oppressed nations and oppressed nationalities and the oppression of women. It enforces social inequality, and all the institutions and ideas that are a necessary part of this whole setup.

U.S. imperialism invades and dominates countries, and exploits people all over the world. It needs a powerful army to enforce this oppression and carry out wars to protect U.S. interests. The reactionary goals of the U.S. military are reflected in its whole nature--its fighting strategies, the way it is organized, and the relations between soldiers. It is an army that relies on a dictatorial hierarchy where superior officers have absolute authority and rank and file soldiers are constantly humiliated, intimidated, and kept ignorant of the real purpose of the wars they are sent to fight.

This is a system that can have Colin Powell head the armed forces--while Black men can't drive down the street without being stopped, brutalized and murdered by the police. This is a system where a woman like Madeline Albright can be appointed Secretary of State--while thousands of women in the military are sexually harassed, abused and raped.

But a revolutionary armed force with the goal of doing away with the oppression and exploitation of the capitalist/imperialist system would not tolerate such abuse of women within its ranks. One of its main sources of strength would be unleashing the fury of women as a mighty force for revolution--as military leaders and soldiers. Not only would women never be treated as the property of men--or as a prize of war--but there would be a determined struggle against any manifestation of the oppression of women within the ranks. The abuse of women among the masses or within the ranks of such an army would be punished with extreme severity. And perpetrators at whatever level--whether officers or rank-and-file soldiers--would be made examples of, with the maximum penalty for rape or similar sexual assault.

The recent exposures of sexual abuse and rape in the U.S. military should challenge the illusions people have about "equal opportunity" for women in the U.S. armed forces. It should teach us more about the nature of U.S. imperialism and its military. And it should also help us to dream about a different kind of army--when the time is right--a liberating and revolutionary army that fights for a whole different kind of society.

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