Away Without Leave

It seems to be generally agreed that the United States Military has not been handling its soldiers very well. The men and women who are serving voluntarily are growing more and more restless with their treatment, and a growing number of soldiers are jumping ship when they get back to the United States, rather than serving more time in the sand encrusted hell hole of the Middle East.

In the beginning, many of these men and women are simply avoiding redeployment, and they drifted off into the large wilderness of the United States to evade capture.

Recently, however, more of these men and women have been taking a stand, allowing themselves to be picked up, and challenging the military in courts of law. This takes an immense amount of bravery, and it’s tragic, also, to see formerly dedicated soldiers questioning the legaility of the war, of repeated redeployments. Many complain that the military is not providing the support it supposedly guarantees, and that it’s falling through on promises made at the time of enlistment. This makes the military understandably nervous, because people who might have been interested in enlisting before are having second thoughts–most people join the military because they are poor, because they want to get money for college or be trained to do something, but at this point it may not be worth the cost.

It was with interest this morning that I read an article in the Chronicle about Army Spc. Suzanne Swift, who was recently arrested (which is in and of itself highly unusual) for being AWOL. She served in the military police in Iraq, and during a recent leave she decided not to come back–more or less at the last minute, actually, because she had already shipped her belongings to Iraq for her next tour, and was getting ready to return. But she changed her mind.

Swift claims that she was sexually harassed by numerous superiors, and that army protocol for handling sexual harasment was not followed. As a result, she lived in fear and constant torment, and decided that it wasn’t worth returning to Iraq for that. Her story as written in the article is both depressing and typical, a clear case of abuse of power. She’s experiencing frustration with the people who were supposed to assist and protect her, and now she’s facing penalities–although she hasn’t been officially charged. Neither, or course, have her harassers.

This is not the first time that charges of sexual harassment and abuse have been lodged by female soldiers against their fellows. It’s a problem, and it always has been. Unfortunately, it probably always will be, thanks to certain attitudes that the military fosters, and the way in which claims of abuse are handled. The military has a long running tradition of degrading women, and of teaching soldiers not to respect women–it’s part of how war is waged. Soldiers indoctrinated with these types of attitudes struggle with how to treat the women they are serving with. Women like Swift are not encouraged to report people, especially their superiors, for this sort of behaviour.

The question for me is what is going to be done about it. The military clearly doesn’t have a lot invested in taking care of their female soldiers, and indeed sometimes turns a deliberate blind eye to bad behaviour. I’m very proud of Swift for challenging the military and holding her ground, and I hope that some sort of good result happens. The military would be wise to be more active about pursuing sexual harassment charges, because women do make up 50% of the population who could potentially be serving in the military, and the thought of signing up only to be abused isn’t very appealing to me, and I can’t imagine it being that appealing to anyone else.

The military is undergoing a sea change, with a rapid expansion of the positions that women are allowed to serve in. Within the tight network of a military unit, more and more women are being integrated to serve side by side–much as African American men were integrated in the 1940s, where they served valiantly and boldly. Perhaps in fifty years someone will be writing about the change in attitudes that happened at the turn of the century, when women joined the military in larger numbers than ever before.

Or perhaps they will be writing about the short lived experiment of women in the military–one that was ultimately abandoned after numerous accusations of harassment, rape, and abuse. Ultimately, it’s up to the military to decide that. Meanwhile, you can write your congressperson and make it clear that you support a hard line on sexual abuse in the military, and that you would like to see a reworking of the way in which claims are handled: not only for all the women currently serving, but for those serving in the future, and for women in general, for as goes the military, so goes society, in many ways.

[sexual harassment]