There is a battle happening in Iraq and it's not between the U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. It's a "private war" between female and male United States soldiers and you won't find reference to it in any of the mainstream media's headlines offering up the latest car bombing or hijacking.
Helen Benedict, in her recent Salon.com article, "The Private War of Women Soldiers", relays true stories of female soldiers who have fought for their lives on the ground in Iraq as they simultaneously battled rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment—all from their fellow U.S. male soldiers.
According to the Salon.com article, more than 160,500 American female soldiers have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East since the war begin in 2003; more women than in any war in U.S. history. And although the Pentagon officially prohibits women from fighting in "ground combat", the line between front-line combat and "support" is utterly blurred in this war. Women are fighting this war on the ground but are increasingly finding themselves in harm's way in their own camps as well.
While statistics on the number of rape and sexual assaults to female soldiers in the Iraq war have not been collected in toto, there are other numbers that make you wonder how and why something hasn't been done to make the military safer for women. According to Helen Benedict, who is also writing a book about women veterans of the Iraq war, a 2003 study by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine indicates that fully one-third of women soldiers are sexually assaulted and/or raped.
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With that in mind, maybe it's not such a surprise to hear about Spc. Mickiela Montoya, a soldier with the National Guard in Iraq in 2005, who "took to carrying a knife with her at all times." According to Montoya, "The knife wasn't for the Iraqis…it was for the guys on my own side."
One of the most telling scenarios about how the military fails to ensure the rights of female soldiers in combat involves latrines and "battle buddies." According to an interview on Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! radio program with Spc. Montoya and Sgt. Eli Painted Crow, an army veteran of twenty-two years, female soldiers are told that if they do not have a "battle buddy"—a fellow female soldier by whom they would be accompanied to the latrine at night—then it is too dangerous to go to the latrines by themselves. Men—and by men I mean male U.S. soldiers—"were waiting out there, and they were pulling women into the latrines and abusing them and raping them there."
But what's a woman to do when she must drink at least three liters of water per day simply to survive the unbearable, 120-degree desert heat? If she is the only female soldier at a particular base camp (and according to Sgt. Eli Painted Crow this is not rare), she can either not go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, or, according to a story uncovered last year, she may die of dehydration choosing not to drink any water after 3:00 in the afternoon, to avoid the latrine and the threat of attack.
One can hardly call these "choices."
The Salon.com article offers story upon story of female soldiers who have suffered rape and sexual assault at the hands of their fellow soldiers—soldiers who are trained for war and hence to kill. This violence obviously extends towards their female counterparts. Madre recently released a report on the human rights crisis of gender-based violence in Iraq and its effect primarily upon Iraqi women. Clearly, we cannot separate the violence that occurs against women in this war—whether it is targeted at U.S. women or Iraqi women.
The military is not keeping women safe. And while there is a part of me that scoffs at the idea that the military keeps anyone safe, the military must be held accountable. The Defense Department did, writes Helen Benedict, "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." But that isn't close to enough to attend to this problem. First of all, relying on female soldiers to report sexual assault or rape to their higher-ups is completely untenable, says the female soldiers themselves:
My team leader offered me up to $250 for a hand job,… and he wouldn't stop pressuring me for sex. But you can't fit in if you make waves about it. You rat somebody out, you're screwed. You're gonna be a loner until they eventually push you out.
This also smells a bit too much like asking the female soldiers to fix a problem that is not theirs to fix. The military promotes a culture of violence that will not be remedied by a few more women reporting their own rapes—even if reporting didn't get them labeled "traitors" and placed in harm's way once again, "punished" by fellow soldiers (because "anonymous reporting" is essentially an oxymoron according to Benedict's interviews).
Commanders, who are supposed to be the very superiors that female soldiers can go to report an incident, are sometimes the perpetrators themselves; preying on young "juniors" 18 to 20 years old.
While the Department of Defense likes to point to its new web site as proof that they are actually doing something about sexual assault in the military, Benedict is unconvinced, "My own interviewees and advocates on behalf of women veterans say these reforms are not working. They say there is a huge gap between what the military promises to do on its Web site and what it does in practice, and that the traditional view that reporting an assault betrays your fellow soldiers still prevails."
Female soldiers are fighting a war on the ground for which they are prepared. But the battle within their own ranks is unexpected; one for which they are entirely unprepared. The military provides no protection from sexual harassment, assault or rape. It is up to the women to protect themselves and to look out for each other—which can be hard when there may not be any other females in a unit with which to "buddy up." If the military will not protect its own soldiers, than it is up to us civilians to spread the word—female soldiers are not fodder for the male soldiers to use to let off steam, even if they seem to be treated that way.