Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military Forces

The case of Suzanne Swift is an example of this:

EUGENE, Ore. -- Suzanne Swift remembers standing in her mother's living room, hours away from her second deployment to Iraq. Her military gear had already been shipped -- along with her Game Boy, her DVDs and books, her favorite pink pillow, her stash of sunflower seeds. She had the car keys in her hand, ready to drive to the base. Suddenly, she turned to her mother.

"I can't do this," she remembers saying. "I can't go."

The Army specialist, now 22, recalls her churning stomach. Her mother's surprise. All at once, she said, she could not bear the idea of another year like her first. She was sexually harassed by one superior, she said, and coerced into a sexual affair with another.

"I didn't want it to happen to me again," she said in an interview.

Now Swift is bracing for a possible court-martial. Arrested in June for going AWOL, she detailed three alleged sexual offenses to Army officials, who began an investigation. One incident had already been verified and the perpetrator disciplined. But last Friday, the Army ruled that the two other incidents could not be substantiated. It will soon decide whether to take disciplinary action against Swift for her five-month absence, spokesman Joe Hitt said.

If she is convicted of desertion, Swift faces prison time and a dishonorable discharge.

Sexual harassment in the military is not uncommon:

The Pentagon says that more than 500 sexual assaults involving U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have been reported. But officials acknowledge that the problem is larger than that and is made more complex by a war deployment.

"Sexual assault is the most underreported violent crime in America, and that's going to be true in the military as well," Pentagon spokesman Roger Kaplan said.

The danger of sexual harassment and rape is one of the arguments those put forward who want to exclude women from the military. That this exclusion punishes the victims rather than perpetrators doesn't seem to matter, and neither does the possibility that the perpetrators might just move to sexually harass local civilians in war areas if no female military troops are available.

The opposite argument to this one has also been exploited by those who want an all-male military: the idea that men in the military can't stop themselves from acting chivalrously by defending the women rather than by doing the job they are assigned to. It's hard to see how they can both protect and sexually harass at the same time, of course.

In reality, I suspect, most men don't fall into either one of these categories. I also suspect that for most men "getting the back" of a comrade-in-arms means just that and not sexual harassment, even when the comrade is a woman. I even suspect that a man in the same position as Suzanne Swift might have felt at least somewhat let down by his superiors.

There is a deeper irony to the program of those who want women out of the military because they might become the victims of sexual harassment. It is that they are often the very same people who want gays out of the military because they are seen as potential perpetrators of sexual harassment. Boggles the mind.