The military is the most sexist institution in the United States.
Helen Benedict's The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq exposes the oppression of women in the armed services.
Women constitute 11 percent of GIs serving in the Middle East today. When The Lonely Soldier went to press, 160,500 women had served in Iraq. Women serve in combat, though not officially. Not since World War II have as many women soldiers died while serving in the armed forces.
The military flourishes on stereotypes of women as weak, passive sex objects and sexual prey who are out of place in combat and can't be depended upon in battle. As one female veteran put it in the book, "There are only three things the guys let you be if you're a girl in the military -- a bitch, a ho or a dyke."
Some military officers express their hostility toward women by undermining their authority, denying them promotions or denigrating their work. Both officers and recruits express it through sexual harassment, assault and rape. Benedict, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, points out, "Studies have shown that sexual harassment can cause the same rates of [posttraumatic stress disorder] in women as combat does in men."
Forty percent of female veterans report that they had been raped while serving in the military. Because of the dangerous and humiliating repercussions, women soldiers rarely report rape. In fact, about 80 percent of military rapes are never reported. To add to the trauma, a woman might have to interact with her rapist every day if he's another soldier in her platoon or an officer.
The oppression of women starts with the new recruits in boot camp. "All recruits are under intense pressure during boot camp," says Benedict, "and it is not uncommon for some to crack, ... but many women have the additional pressure of sexual harassment. When they run obstacle courses, men line up to ogle their bodies. When they walk into the food hall, hundreds of eyes undress them. When they reach or bend to pick up something, men whistle, groan and stare. This can go on every hour of every day and creates an excruciating sense of oppression that few men ever experience."
Using misogynist language -- calling male and female recruits pussies, girls, bitches and dykes -- is a daily event; officers use such language to deliberately humiliate the troops and make them more pliable to the armed services' authoritarian structure. The male soldiers maintain a litany of misogynist songs, like this one Benedict quotes, sung to the tune of "The Candy Man":
Who can take a chainsaw
Cut the bitch in two
Fuck the bottom half
And give the upper half to you?
As one female veteran in The Lonely Soldier put it, "I wasn't carrying [a] knife for the enemy, I was carrying it for the guys on my own side." Another female vet observed, "I ended up waging my own war against an enemy dressed in the same uniform as mine."
Women in the military are lonely because they often serve in platoons with no other women. "This isolation, along with the military's deep-seated hostility toward women," Benedict says, "can cause problems that many female soldiers find as hard to cope with as war itself: degradation and sexual persecution by their comrades, and loneliness instead of the camaraderie that every soldier depends on for comfort and survival."
Rarely, Benedict notes, does a female soldier achieve acceptance, not to mention respect, from her fellow soldiers or officers.
To survive and protect themselves psychologically from the unrelenting torment, women soldiers suppress their personalities and assume cold, hard personas. This way of adapting makes it hard to adjust to civilian life when their military service is over.
The Lonely Soldier focuses on five veterans out of 40 Benedict interviewed for the book, and she lets them tell their stories in three parts -- before, during and after their war experience.
Though Benedict didn't intend it, the stories lead to the conclusion that woman-hating is built into and inseparable from the hierarchy and patriarchy of the military system. Benedict herself says, "In some ways these are the stories of individuals, in other ways, they are the universal stories of war."
"Forty percent of female veterans report that they had been raped while serving in the military."
However, the book's path takes a sharp turn away from systemic problems when Benedict ends it by suggesting reforms that could improve women's lives in the armed services.
Though Benedict doesn't intend it, the stories also argue for changing or abandoning the system rather than merely offering a set of reforms and leaving the system intact. By describing the horrors of war and their effects on those who fight in it, the book implies that war is an insane way to resolve conflict and that dialogue and diplomacy must replace it.
Benedict is a pragmatist, not a pacifist. She assumes that wars are inevitable and knows that for financial and other reasons, women will enter the military. Among the reforms she suggests are promoting more women to positions of power and firmly upholding the idea that "rape is a war crime and form of torture and is no more tolerated in the military than it is in international courts [emphasis in the original]."
Prosecuting rape would be a progressive, long-overdue act. But as to promoting more women, a veteran interviewed in the book pointed out that one of the worst oppressors of women and people of color she encountered in the military was a female officer. In other words, sexism is a systemic problem that promoting more women will not solve. Thus, the veterans' stories argue for understanding sexism in the military as systemic, with its roots firmly set in a culture of machismo.
Benedict has written an antiwar book in spite of herself. Its reformist conclusion notwithstanding, The Lonely Soldier is invaluable as an exposé of the inner workings of an institution that most Americans are unaware of or don't acknowledge and of the madness of war making. The book underscores the fact that whatever gains women have made in the last 40 years or so, most of those gains have excluded the armed services.
For women soldiers, reading the veterans' stories should dispel some of the loneliness, and the appendix on "Where to Get Help" should place military women in a better position to resist.
Linda Greene can be reached at email@example.com.