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The Battlefield and the Barracks: Two War Fronts for Women Soldiers

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

The distinction between military support and combat roles vanished in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars of occupation. With this blurring of boundaries, military women serving in these wars, though barred from ground combat, have worked in situations as dangerous as those faced by men.

They have patrolled streets with machine guns, served as gunners on vehicles, dismantled explosives, driven trucks down bomb-ridden streets, and rescued the dead and injured in battle zones.

These same women have found themselves, concurrently, caught in a second, more damaging war – a private, preemptive one in the barracks. As one female soldier put it, “They basically assume that because you are a girl in the Army, you're obligated to have sex with them.” Resisting sexual assault in the barracks spills over to the battlefield, according to many women veterans, in the form of relentless verbal sexual harassment, punitive high-risk assignments and the morbid sense that your back is not being watched.

Women in the Battlefield and the Barracks: A Five Part Series on Two War Fronts for Women Soldiers

The double trauma of war and sexual assault by “brothers-in-arms” within a culture of impunity for perpetrators may explain why a 2008 RAND Corporation study [1] “found that female veterans are suffering double the rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] than their male counterparts.” Patricia Resick, a psychiatrist who researches PTSD in women for the Veterans Administration (VA), asserts “sexual trauma is a more significant risk factor for PTSD than combat or the types of trauma that men generally experience.” Resick adds that sexual trauma, unlike combat trauma, is caused by people who are supposed to bond with you and protect you, and that betrayal by those you need to trust with your life deepens the harm.

Military sexual trauma (sometimes referred to as MST) is so extreme that it is even more likely to cause PTSD in women than civilian sexual trauma ­­- because of military culture. While the vaunted military ideal of loyalty does not stop a male soldier from raping his fellow soldier, it does block his victim from reporting sexual assault by branding her a “snitch” if she does. She lives and works isolated in a closed world, which shares a tacit pact of loyalty to her rapist. Further, women veterans have reported that rape was often accompanied by a threat to kill or mutilate, [2] thus adding the terror of nearly being killed to that of being sexually assaulted.

Some years ago, an article glibly titled “Dancers Land in Iraq, Marines Offer No Resistance” appeared in The New York Times. It featured a photo more capacious than the story text, displaying the bottom half of a long-legged, lightly clad woman on stage being ogled by scores of fully clothed soldiers. Lighthearted commentary on the “patriotic” tradition of female sex symbols boosting soldiers' morale in war zones accompanied the photo. The upbeat description of a boisterous, cheering crowd of male marines and Iraqi army officers in training belied, however, the hazards of such military-funded entertainment to their fellow women soldiers. A female air force officer's objection that “the dancers' wardrobes and routines encouraged insensitive attitudes toward women in the military” was offhandedly noted. Otherwise, the feel-good story airbrushed the risks of sexually objectifying entertainment to the notably absent women soldiers, already living in a climate of pervasive pornography, sexual harassment and sexual assault in the day-to-day war environment of Iraq.

The first decade of the 21st century was a record one for women serving in the US military: Women constituted 14 percent of all active-duty military (over 200,000) with 1 in 10 serving in the Middle East and 17 percent in the National Guard. Hundreds of stories and hearings, as well as new Department of Defense (DoD) corrective procedures, emerged during the same decade regarding a pervasive, normative culture of deep-rooted misogyny – with women treated as sexual prey rather than as adult soldiers – in military training and service. More recently, a mounting chorus of Congressional and veterans' voices have denounced the timid and toothless response to sexual violence in its ranks from an otherwise force-projecting, armed-to-the-teeth Pentagon. The lid of a once hermetically sealed environment of military sexual abuse is beginning to lift.

In this series, “The Battlefield and the Barracks: Two War Fronts for Women Soldiers,” we will probe several key issues:

  • What it is about military culture that results in such extreme sexual crime and the magnitude of sexual assault and harassment of women in the military?
  • Why is sexual assault is so traumatizing for women soldiers, and why are women “the biggest losers” in the failed US war in Iraq?
  • The response of the DoD and the VA to the epidemic of sexual crime, with its severe health consequences, in their midst.
  • The radical changes necessary to reform a recalcitrant military.



2. Helen Benedict. 2009. “The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women in Iraq.” Boston: Beacon Press.

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