Sunday, March 25, 2007

Women Soldiers...Another View

I came across this disturbing piece in Salon soon after it was published and I can't get it out of my head. Initially it struck me as one of those muckraking articles like Mother Jones prints, based on solid facts but so focused on the solid facts that the reader is led to believe that there are no other solid facts that might counterbalance the thesis being advanced. But in this case something rings true about the thesis, that women in uniform, in combat, are more than likely subject treated with the same atavistic impulses by the men around them that drive the whole enterprise of being good warriors.

Comprehensive statistics on the sexual assault of female soldiers in Iraq have not been collected, but early numbers revealed a problem so bad that former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered a task force in 2004 to investigate. As a result, the Defense Department put up a Web site in 2005 designed to clarify that sexual assault is illegal and to help women report it. It also initiated required classes on sexual assault and harassment. The military's definition of sexual assault includes "rape; nonconsensual sodomy; unwanted inappropriate sexual contact or fondling; or attempts to commit these acts."

Unfortunately, with a greater number of women serving in Iraq than ever before, these measures are not keeping women safe. When you add in the high numbers of war-wrecked soldiers being redeployed, and the fact that the military is waiving criminal and violent records for more than one in 10 new Army recruits, the picture for women looks bleak indeed. Last year, Col. Janis Karpinski caused a stir by publicly reporting that in 2003, three female soldiers had died of dehydration in Iraq, which can get up to 126 degrees in the summer, because they refused to drink liquids late in the day. They were afraid of being raped by male soldiers if they walked to the latrines after dark. The Army has called her charges unsubstantiated, but Karpinski told me she sticks by them. (Karpinski has been a figure of controversy in the military ever since she was demoted from brigadier general for her role as commander of Abu Ghraib. As the highest-ranking official to lose her job over the torture scandal, she claims she was scapegoated, and has become an outspoken critic of the military's treatment of women. In turn, the Army has accused her of sour grapes.)

"I sat right there when the doctor briefing that information said these women had died in their cots," Karpinski told me. "I also heard the deputy commander tell him not to say anything about it because that would bring attention to the problem." The latrines were far away and unlit, she explained, and male soldiers were jumping women who went to them at night, dragging them into the Port-a-Johns, and raping or abusing them. "In that heat, if you don't hydrate for as many hours as you've been out on duty, day after day, you can die." She said the deaths were reported as non-hostile fatalities, with no further explanation.

So afraid to pee after dark that they died of dehydration because they failed to drink enough liquids in the desert heat! That's unbelievable. One instance would be bad, but the reporter says the situation is chronic, not acute.

Since the story was published there have been a couple of "corrections" to the text, which leads me to think that subsequent to the publication some of the sources came under pressure to say they "misspoke" or relied on second-hand information. Sorry, but I'm not persuaded. I've had too many hours sitting in conflict resolution sessions to believe that where there is smoke there can be no fire.

This is not a short piece but the style is clear and easy to follow. Interested readers are urged to sit through the Salon ads at the beginning and read the entire piece.

I'm hoping that someone who knows otherwise will come forward to argue the case against this report. I have been reading and listening since it was published and all I hear is a deafening silence. That's not a good sign.


Risawn said...

That is sad, but I've never experienced this problem in my career in the military. Then again, I was privileged with an 'easy' deployment to Kosovo where the stress is not nearly at the state it is in Iraq, nor is the danger. And it looks like I won't have that problem any time soon as I doubt I'll deploy there.

Still, any news on the fact that most people in a warzone are armed? I would have that rifle at the ready if I feared for my safety.

Hoots said...

Thank you for this input. I am somewhat reassured to think the problem is not universal. Your point is well-taken, that circumstances in a war zone are not at all typical of military life (or civilian, for that matter) everywhere.

My girls are in their thirties, so when I read reports such as this I read through the eyes of a protective father.

From what I have read, Karpinsky is becoming one of the military's worst nightmares. If what she alleges is even partly true serious changes are in order.