Commentary | Masculine military muscle

Discharged American soldier Steven Green is currently attempting to repeal a life-sentence for his participation in the gang-rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl in 2006 while on duty. His case brought much-needed attention to the military’s pervasively sexual culture, where sexual violence, while rampant, remains largely underreported.

The military is fundamentally an institution forged on the precept that coercive execution of power over another party is acceptable. If we anthropomorphize this military pathology in its inner clockwork, it should not be bewildering that U.S. military nurses who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq have conceded that they felt more preyed upon by fellow soldiers than by “the enemy.” According to a study conducted by the Journal of Military Medicine, 71 per cent of female American veterans since Vietnam have been sexually assaulted or raped while serving, an egregious figure despite and because of the truism that Military Sexual Trauma (MST) often remains a silent grievance.

Obama’s ratification of the Defence Authorization Bill earlier this month, in spite of its spurious expansion of the military’s tendrils, laudably incorporates provisions poised to better assist those who have suffered from MST. While this charts a course in the right direction for addressing the military epidemic of sexual assault, silence amongst the assaulted remains the norm due to a military judiciary which coddles perpetrators.

In filing charges, victims imperil their career and professional credibility, given the possibility of their allegations being deemed unfounded. The exigency of earnestness in such claims should therefore be reflected in high rates of criminal prosecution. On the contrary – -of 2,974 reported cases of rape and sexual assault in the American military in 2006 (when the Pentagon was first mandated to record it), a meagre 292 proceeded to trial, out of which only 181 prosecutions resulted. With the onus placed on the victim to substantiate the assault, which in many cases occurred years ago, a dearth of evidence ensures low prosecution rates.

While the disgraces of America’s chauvinistic military culture are being reversed by the repeal of the homophobic Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy and the increasing pressure to permit women to serve in combat, an attack on the military’s gender disequilibrium and heteronormativity does not address the preeminent vice of military sexual culture. The military remains a milieu encouraging to the deleterious execution of power within the tremendously asymmetrical power dynamics of cultural conquest and division.

As this cultural access is globalized, the interplay of masculinity and violence remains pervasive outside the military realm. When traditional channels through which to satisfy notions of “manhood” – namely by fulfilling the economic and professional breadwinner function – are barred, power outlets shift. The violent groundswell of xenophobic right-wing movements in the West and religious fundamentalism in the East are largely populated by downwardly mobile, lower to middle class men militantly reacting to globalization’s economic and social shifts through a process of scapegoating. These bellicose, often nationalistic movements manifest disenfranchised men’s attempts to re-assert “masculinities” impoverished by hostile economic realities. Aggressively channelling blame for emasculation – powerlessness in the economic sphere – onto “others” becomes a rudiment of masculinity.

The military likewise operates on a logic of “othering,” one through which the inhuman enemy is simply fodder to supplement a chronic appetite for power and “manhood” while simultaneously placing men in a power matrix that normalizes prescribed gender roles and sexual violence by normalizing power hierarchies and coercion. As states mortgage off their economies by fortifying their military muscle, they are expanding the channels for their batteries – mainly men – to exert a military conceptualization of “power” concocted with the noxious spices of caricaturized masculinity. As a result, it is the rule – not the exception – that the military enterprise adulterates both its agents and its subjects.


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