Be all that you can be

In the military, that means rape and pillage at will -- and in your own ranks.


Judith Levine
May 2, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

what? Soldiers of the United States Armed Forces hurt people? They stick pins into recruits' bare chests?

They force women to have sex?

The blizzard of "sexual misconduct" charges at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and the conviction this week of Staff Sgt. Delmar G. Simpson on 18 counts of rape have elicited a chorus of "Shocked, shocked!" responses from the press and the military itself. Simpson's rape conviction, said the New York Times, has "raised questions about whether the military is, as it is supposed to be, a haven of discipline and safety or whether it has deteriorated into a dangerous place in which women are afraid of male superiors."

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Guess what. The military is supposed to humiliate, intimidate and instill fear into people. Electrical engineering, weather forecasting, Being All You Can Be -- nice, but beside the point. Meteorology is what warriors do when there's no interesting killing to occupy them. Violence is the military's job.

And masculine violence is the military's creed.

Just before the Persian Gulf War, George Bush had been worrying about "the manhood thing." Saddam Hussein showed up, and (not to oversimplify) $44 billion and an estimated 200,000 deaths later, the cartoonist Oliphant stopped drawing the president with a purse.

When there's no enemy around, the manhood thing still needs cultivating, so soldiers utilize one another. A student of mine, a former Marine, wrote a piece describing in lascivious detail the infamous "wings"-pinning rituals, and suggesting in so many words that if some little sissies wanted to whine about sadism in the Marines, well, they didn't understand the Marines, and nobody was asking them to join the Marines. "That's how Marines bond," the student quoted an obviously admired officer. "A Marine doesn't flinch from pain. He acts like a man."

This student is a woman, by the way. Now that women are in the military, they act like men too. In fact, a not insignificant number of female recruits agree with a Navy woman who told me, of the women reporting sexual harassment in the military, "Those girls just can't hack it. I can't stand people who can't hack it."

The Aberdeenians, according to the New York Times, were doing it in buses, barracks and "the public game-and-television room," and with folks of all ranks. Has bringing women in contributed to an atmosphere of sexual license -- nay, mayhem -- on the bases?

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Not really. The Trojans were well known for their soldierly trysts. In "Coming Out Under Fire," historian Alan Berube describes World War II's off-base bars and onshore flophouses as hopping with homosexual hanky-panky. Now that the sexes have come together, so to speak, it makes sense that they'd continue carrying on. In that sense, Tailhook, far from being a "deterioration" in military values, merely followed in the grand tradition. As did our beer-spewing boys who assaulted those three Japanese schoolgirls in Okinawa. And Staff Sgt. Simpson is no exception.

All these recent scandals add up to good news and bad. The good news is that because women are gaining some influence in it, the military, like every other sector of American life, is finally taking "sexual misconduct" seriously.

The bad news is that to the military, it's all "sexual misconduct." Rape and harassment or adultery and sodomy performed by willing parties: It's all the same. Only "fraternization" -- when an officer does it with an enlisted -- makes any of the above worse, as in the case of Simpson, some of whose sexual appetites seem to have been shared by his partners, but all of whose partners were trainees.

Why is the military unable to tell the difference between sex and violence? At the risk of tautology, I offer: Because it's the military.

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A strictly hierarchical institution, committed to forcefully inflicting submission on people and nations, cannot conceive of human relations outside domination. Equally, an institution dedicated to guarding the helpless woman and child cannot conceive of a female person outside victimization. Add to that a sexual-political climate obsessed with assigning the "predator" and "prey" labels in every ambiguous sexual situation. What you come up with is an impossible blurring of lines that makes all sex between two unmarried people in the military bad; if one is of higher rank, it's rape.

But why should consensual sex between people of unequal social or physical power ipso facto be rape -- unless, like anti-porn feminist Andrea Dworkin, you believe that all heterosexual sex is rape? Inequality, we may be reminded, can sometimes be a chosen pleasure. As a lesbian private appreciatively told me while describing the loss of her cherry to her commanding officer, "Boy, was she commanding."

You won't rid the military of sexist violence until it stops finding violence sexy and lovemaking dishonorable. Until, in other words, it stops loving war, on which day the military will no longer be the military.

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Judith Levine

Judith Levine is a journalist and author of four books, most recently "Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping."

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