The scourge of military sexual assault and the warrior’s masculine code
By Elizabeth D. Samet
June 5, 2017
“Crisis,” “cancer,” “silent epidemic,” “stain [on] our force’s honor”—these are among the ways senior Department of Defense officials over the past several years have described the incidence of sexual assault against women and men in the armed forces of the United States. Almost everyone thinks sexual assault in the military is a problem—and thinks about it as a problem linked to the presence of women in uniform, even though men are also victimized. Some Americans, however, including the current commander in chief, apparently believe it to be an inevitability. In the spring of 2013, when DOD leaders testified before Congress as it searched for solutions, Donald Trump tweeted: “26,000 unreported sexual assults [sic] in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”
In early September 2016, in the midst of the presidential campaign, candidate Trump stood by his tweet as “correct.” A month later, he defended more of his words, this time his boast about groping women at will, as “locker-room banter.” It’s worth quoting the relevant part of Trump’s 2005 conversation with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush, as transcribed by The Washington Post: “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. … You can do anything. … Grab them by the p—y. You can do anything.” For these words, the nominee offered the quintessential nonapology: “I apologize if anyone was offended.” The implication is that we ought to recognize such “banter” between men for what it is and not take it too seriously. Some observers dismiss scrutiny of such talk as symptomatic of an unwarranted political correctness. To them, it is a verbal performance that has no real import and no ultimate bearing on a speaker’s behavior.
The Centers for Disease Control offers a different context for interpreting language that objectifies and denigrates. It lists the following attributes among communal and societal risk factors for the perpetration of sexual violence: “tolerance of sexual violence within the community,” “societal norms that support male superiority and sexual entitlement,” and “societal norms that maintain women’s inferiority and sexual submissiveness.” Among individual risk factors, the CDC includes “empathic deficits,” “general aggressiveness and acceptance of violence,” and “coercive sexual fantasies.” These factors are demonstrated in what apologists call locker-room talk. It is naïve to think that certain people don’t talk like that in certain places; it is something else to underwrite it—with a dismissive wave of the hand or with a vote.
My profession as a literary scholar consists in analyzing texts—in explicating a concatenation of words, meanings, and motives in the hopes of better understanding attitudes and values, capacities and limitations, kinship and difference. I have been trained to think that language, both the personal language of individuals and the corporate language of institutions, actually does bear a connection to who and what people and institutions really are—and aspire to be. Sometimes language also discloses obstacles that hamper progress. In the locker room, the classroom, the boardroom, or the recreational day room of a military unit, words reveal and conceal, protect and betray, refine and coarsen, sensitize and desensitize.
A good deal of the textual analysis I do occurs at West Point in the company of some of the military’s newest members, college students and aspiring army officers who will lead formations of soldiers and who in that capacity may one day need to respond to a report of sexual assault in their command. No matter their good intentions in this regard—and I have long trusted to the good intentions of the young men and women I teach—these cadets are part of a culture that has, frankly, a great deal of difficulty thinking and talking about women and femininity. As sociologists, behavioral scientists, and cultural critics have observed, the military has long demanded the performance of masculinity. It is a subculture that finds strength in traditions that celebrate the superiority of men and a masculine ideal rooted in physical dominance, an ideal sustained by feminizing all those, in uniform and out, who fail to live up to it.
Especially at first, cadets cultivate the kind of solidarity often found among a hierarchy’s most junior members. Such solidarity works to erase differences in sex, race, or ethnicity. In his memoir Burning the Days, James Salter describes his experiences at West Point in the 1940s: “The most urgent thing was to somehow fit in, to become unnoticed, the same.” This impulse still prevails, and my students are more likely to define themselves against civilians than against one another, even though they have lived the bulk of their lives as civilians. Something else uniting them is the common language they learn—much of it technical and professional, some of it a kind of argot. The military trains service members as comprehensively in language as in marching or marksmanship. Part of any new recruit’s socialization entails learning a new vocabulary for everyday items, for familiar and unfamiliar concepts alike, even for the hours of the day.
Among the linguistic tics cadets most quickly acquire is the use of the noun female in lieu of woman. They see it in formal briefings and official documents, and they hear it in everyday conversation. Woman is by far the more usual choice in civilian culture, where female has at best a biological or zoological connotation and at worst a pejorative one. Yet female is ubiquitous in military culture. (The use of male as a noun is by no means commensurate.)
Perhaps the usage’s strangeness is emphasized for me by the literary context in which I most often hear it. Lady Macbeth’s summoning of deadly spirits to “unsex” her loses much of its force if we call her a female. Yet Lady Macbeth and Virgil’s Dido and Jane Austen’s Emma are routinely referred to as females in my classroom. And many, though not all, women there seem to be unduly anxious lest some comment of theirs be misconstrued as feminist: “Not that I’m a feminist,” I have heard capable, otherwise confident women say, qualifying even the mildest assertion of a woman’s rights.
To my ear, female carries a pejorative air in this setting, yet its speakers don’t seem to hear the same thing. They’ve already been conditioned. Clinical, technical, bureaucratic—female ends up making a woman sound less like an individual human being and more like a participant in a laboratory experiment. Its frequency is an instance of the successful promulgation of an institutional term that is meant to defuse the presence of sexuality and sexual difference even, paradoxically, as it denotes biological identity. Women are as likely to use it as men. Indeed, while watching The Invisible War, a recent documentary about the sexual assault of women and men in the military, I noted with some sadness that even the victims, many of whom have been out of the service for years, tend to use it when speaking about themselves. Tellingly, one interviewee, Regina Vasquez, acknowledged that she was finally “learning how to appreciate being a woman again.” Under what conditions, I wonder, might it be possible to appreciate being both a woman and a service member?
The military is a culture of uniformity and cohesion, its norms historically male even if often tacitly so. Whatever individuates—linguistically or otherwise—signals a threat to the viability of the system. Yet a sometimes embarrassing consciousness of difference persists. I recall that women in West Point’s Corps of Cadets were among the most vocal opponents of a policy now long in place that cadets lock their doors at night to protect themselves from potential predators—a precaution entirely uncontroversial in civilian settings. At the time, opposition to the proposed policy rested on the existence of the honor code. To lock a door, the argument ran, was somehow to impugn the culture of honor. The most obvious appeal to the individual right of personal security tended to be eclipsed by a rhetoric of corporate honor. Over the years, the latter has also characterized the military’s various campaigns against sexual harassment and assault, which have tended to emphasize the damage done to force readiness and mission capability by such crimes as much as they do the harm done to the individual.
The ubiquity of the word female betrays a lingering institutional confusion about how male culture should incorporate women without surrendering the elements of the historically masculine code of the warrior that are worth preserving. The persistence of a gendered understanding of military honor is nowhere more apparent than in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the law governing the conduct of all service members. Punitive Article 133 addresses “Conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman.” The 2016 Manual for Courts-Martial United States, the guide for officers conducting such proceedings, offers a necessary clarification: “As used in this article, ‘gentleman’ includes both male and female commissioned officers, cadets, and midshipmen.” It offers the following explanation:
There are certain moral attributes common to the ideal officer and the perfect gentleman, a lack of which is indicated by acts of dishonesty, unfair dealing, indecency, indecorum, lawlessness, injustice, or cruelty. Not everyone is or can be expected to meet unrealistically high moral standards, but there is a limit of tolerance based on customs of the service and military necessity below which the personal standards of an officer, cadet, or midshipman cannot fall without seriously compromising the person’s standing as an officer, cadet, or midshipman or the person’s character as a gentleman.
This explanation is helpful as far as it goes, the attributes it enumerates laudable, but it remains silent about the rationale behind the application of an unambiguously restrictive term to women and men alike. It is as if the authors could not even conceive of appropriate conduct that wasn’t also, at bottom, the conduct of a gentleman, the conduct of a man. Language has here been wrenched in a misguided attempt at inclusivity. The explanation fails to register the glaring fact that a woman, by definition, can never be a “perfect gentleman” and thus by extension never an “ideal officer.” I’m reminded of Sam Spade’s praise of his secretary, Effie, in Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon: “You’re a damned good man, sister,” Spade tells her. It is the highest praise of a woman his world knows: namely, that she acts like a man.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice is part of the United States Code. Amended as necessary by Congress as part of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, it is a living document that ostensibly evolves with the times. Its anachronisms are therefore suggestive, arguably the product of blind spots, resistance, or limited imaginations. At least to some degree, this particular anachronism was visible to those charged with interpreting the statute for the instruction manual. Yet they retained it.
The tenacity of the ideal of the “perfect gentleman,” like another article’s prohibition on dueling, reveals the archaic nature of the code that undergirds military law in the 21st century. Article 114 reads: “Any person subject to this chapter who fights or promotes, or is concerned in or connives at fighting a duel, or who, having knowledge of a challenge sent or about to be sent, fails to report the fact promptly to the proper authority, shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.” The Manual goes on to define dueling as a fight with “deadly weapons” arranged for “private reasons” by “prior agreement.” This article seems at once sensible—no one could deny that a duel subverts good order and discipline—and residual, a vestige of some lost age when seconds arranged meetings in the misty dawn between aggrieved parties whose honor was at stake. We might think of the fatal meeting between Revolutionary War veterans Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton one summer morning in 1804.
It should come as no surprise that the American military prohibition on dueling dates all the way back to the first American Articles of War, established by the Continental Congress in 1775. It marks the Uniform Code of Military Justice as a code of honor, the product of a culture of honor, which, as the historian Joanne Freeman has shown in an elegant book on the subject, Affairs of Honor (2001), was essential to the early republic and to political actors like Burr and Hamilton: “In a nation lacking an established aristocracy, this culture of honor was a crucial proving ground for the elite.” Honor was “entirely other-directed, determined before the eyes of the world.” Resting in one’s name and reputation for honesty in the public sphere, it was, moreover, the exclusive preserve of gentlemen: throughout most of recorded history, a woman’s honor has depended primarily on her sexual conduct—namely, her chastity. And defending a woman’s honor was theoretically part of a gentleman’s portfolio.
The adultery narrative, and the obsession with civilian women’s sexual fidelity in particular, has long occupied a central place in military culture, especially in the often-obscene cadences male military personnel used to sing while marching. Known as “Jody calls,” these songs often featured a civilian man named Jody who stole a recruit’s wife or girlfriend. Although cadences have been sanitized, the unofficial culture remains obsessed with adultery and saturated by misogyny, as suggested by the recent revelations that Marines and Marine veterans—the other services have also opened investigations—shared nude photos of female service members. According to New York Times reporter Dave Philipps, the sexual shaming of Marines was apparently “an evolution of a retaliatory practice called ‘make her famous.’ Marines would share nude photographs of girlfriends or spouses they believed were cheating through text messages to a broad swath of people, encouraging them to forward the photos.” One former Marine, Alexander McCoy, provided an example in a New York Times op-ed: “My platoon even had a ‘slut wall.’ This drill-instructor-approved bulletin board was where recruits posted photos of girlfriends who broke up with them during training. The unspoken, but clearly understood, rule was that the raunchier these photos were, the better.” The habitual suspicion of civilian women and the public humiliation of unchaste girlfriends and wives were thus extended to female Marines themselves.
The use of women and their reputations as a medium of exchange in a masculine commerce of honor has a long lineage. As Eugen Weber wrote in these pages years ago in an essay called “The Ups and Downs of Honor,” it dates all the way back to the West’s oldest war story, the Iliad, which “opens with a quarrel about honor.” To appease the gods and rid the Greeks of pestilence, Agamemnon is forced to surrender a concubine, and the only thing that will satisfy him is someone else’s (here in Robert Fagles’s translation): “But fetch me another prize, and straight off too, / else I alone of the Argives go without my honor.” Possession of an enslaved woman is the only acceptable proof of honor’s preservation, the only salvation from “disgrace.” Weber argues, “The function of this tragedy, as of many others, is to glorify and heroicize ugly motives and ugly deeds. If we look at it afresh … we will discover that the Iliad … presents two gang-leading thugs, Achilles and Agamemnon, facing each other down, trading threats and insults over loot and women, and that the whole poem turns on plunder and pride and the sport of killing.”
Weber analyzes the enduring appeal and destructive force of this kind of honor (in literature and in life), especially as it is expressed in military exploits: “So honor is renown, glory, riches, power; but these have to be won and preserved by valiance—valor, bravery.” He draws a direct link between the “temerity” of the eponymous hero of the medieval French Song of Roland and the wild recklessness of the American West:
No wonder that when George Armstrong Custer … led a cavalry charge near the Little Bighorn River from which not one man came out alive, the New York Herald extolled the charge as “mad” and praised the catastrophic Custer’s “strong impulses, greathearted friendship and bitter enmities, nervous temperament, undaunted courage, will and determination.”
Agamemnon and Achilles, Roland and Custer—all of these men express attributes of a figure the evolutionary biologists Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson call the “demonic male,” who uses violence to achieve dominance. This figure, whom both men and women have proven “extraordinarily ready to admire, to love, and to reward,” does not appear in all species, not even in all of the great apes. Although demonism is not limited to male animals—among hyenas, for example, female animals do the killing—female demons do rely “on male hormones to stimulate aggressiveness.” Wrangham and Peterson conclude that it is especially frightening that humans match their demonic impulse with a “burning intelligence—and therefore a capacity for creation and destruction without precedent.” The positive side is that our intelligence can, “through the acquisition of wisdom, draw us away from the 5-million-year stain of our ape past.”
It is no accident that so many of Weber’s examples are soldiers. Military culture is steeped in a tradition that defends honor and reputation by achieving dominance through destruction. Even when a war’s cause is just and its actors infused with noble ideals, its means are always violent. The root of the soldier’s appeal lies in the willingness, as Hamlet discerns in the Norwegian prince Fortinbras, to expose “what is mortal and unsure / To all that fortune, death and danger dare.” As Samuel Johnson suggested in the 18th century, a military life “has the dignity of danger. Mankind reverence those who have got over fear, which is so general a weakness.”
Historically, as should be clear by now, the dignity of danger—and therefore of the conquest and oppression daring frequently makes possible—has traditionally been associated with physical prowess and been achieved almost exclusively by men, and not necessarily by gentlemen. Women waited patiently at home for the end of war or, if their side lost, waited, like Agamemnon’s human “prize,” to be seized as part of the victors’ spoils and then often to endure the murder of their children. An acceptance of this eventuality appears in Hector’s vivid imagining of what will happen to his wife Andromache after his death:
it is less the pain of the Trojans still to come
that weighs me down …
That is nothing, nothing beside your agony
when some brazen Argive hales you off in tears,
wrenching away your day of light and freedom!
After the fall of Troy, Andromache will be enslaved, her son Astyanax, according to most versions of the myth, hurled from the walls by a Greek warrior. And thus the Trojan War ends where it began, in the rape of a woman. The modern English word rape is rooted in the Latin rapere, meaning to seize, snatch, tear away, or plunder. The rape of Helen of Troy—her abduction from the Spartan court of Menelaus by the Trojan prince Paris—is the casus belli; the enslavement of the Trojan women will be its consequence. And make no mistake: the abduction of those women would have entailed, among other things, sexual enslavement. As Homer tells it, the history of war is also a history of rape in the word’s ancient and modern senses. As the several authors of the multidisciplinary study Sex and World Peace (2012) propose, societies in which women are the least secure are those that are also most likely to go to war.
The promise of rape has served as both threat and reward for soldiers. Shakespeare’s villainous King Richard III motivates his troops before the Battle of Bosworth by demanding whether their enemies should be allowed to “enjoy our lands, lie with our wives, / Ravish our daughters?” In a speech tellingly omitted from many productions of Henry V, the eponymous hero of Agincourt tells the French governor of Harfleur to surrender while his troops are still within his control and thus prevent the “heady murder, spoil, and villany” that is their wont. “If not,” Henry blusters,
why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
While the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds.
This play is a favorite of soldiers because of its evocation of a “band of brothers,” but this isn’t the speech they remember or recite.
Lest we dismiss these threats of appalling violence as dramatic hyperbole, Paul Jorgensen reminds us in his thoughtful book Shakespeare’s Military World (1956) that the historical chronicles substantiate Shakespeare’s dramatizations. In The Annales of England, for example, John Stow records that after the 1586 surrender of Doesburg in the Low Countries, England’s earl of Essex attempted in vain to stop his victorious army’s continued violence. After the burghers surrendered and put themselves at the “mercy” of the English, the town’s defenders attempted to pass through the breach in the wall with their wives: “It was a grievous thing to see how [the women] were ransacked till the earle of Essex and divers other gentlemen came downe the breach, and by smiting and beating the soldiers made them leave off rifling them.”
Rape is common in armies, like those of Elizabethan England, motivated largely by the promise of “spoils.” Indeed, as the political scientist Tuba Inal argues in her book Looting and Rape in Wartime (2013), it was the apparent normality of rape in war that effectively delayed its prohibition by international law: “The fact that rape was thought to be inevitable because of the biological nature of men and women made it virtually impossible, in the eyes of the states, to prevent it, especially in war. Therefore, not wanting to commit to a prohibition that was bound to be violated by their armed forces, states made sure that they would not be accused of the violation of international laws.” Although states accepted a “high obligation” to punish pillaging by signing on to The Hague Convention of 1907, Inal shows, it wasn’t until the Rome Statute of 1998 that they accepted a corresponding obligation for rape. The 19th-century Lieber Code, adopted by the United States during the Civil War, was actually progressive among national codes of conduct in criminalizing rape, Inal notes.
The examples I’ve cited have involved the rape of women regarded as belonging to the enemy. Two more recent examples, Russian soldiers’ rape of German women on a massive scale during World War II and the programmatic use of rape as a weapon of war by Serb forces against captured Muslim women in Bosnia-Herzegovina, also fit this pattern. The legends most central to Western culture’s founding mythology offer numerous examples of such behavior, perhaps most notably in the story of the Sabine women, who were lured along with their husbands to Rome under false pretenses and then abducted by the Romans, who were trying to increase their population and were short of women.
But many of the sexual assaults perpetrated by American military personnel today are directed at other service members: women and men who are internal rather than external targets for violent sexual predation. This is a particular act of betrayal. Some studies show that military sexual assault can produce greater negative consequences for victims than does civilian sexual assault. Legal scholar Rosa Brooks has noted that rates of sexual assault in the military are lower than those in certain civilian populations, such as college students. Some experts theorize that one of the reasons women who are victims of military sexual assault tend to suffer so intensely in the aftermath of the crime may be that the military places such a high premium on trust and cohesion. Assault violates the culture’s elemental values.
The Roman historian Livy recounts a story of rape that offers a useful if imperfect parallel to such deep betrayal: the rape of the Roman matron Lucretia by the king’s son Sextus Tarquinius. The story is fable posing as history; for that reason, it suggests the force of literary narrative in exposing and shaping cultural expectations. Livy begins the story in a military camp. The Roman army, its initial assault on neighboring Ardea having failed, has “settled down into permanent quarters” to await the result of a long siege. The soldiers have a great deal of liberty, and the most senior of them gather in Sextus’s quarters for a day of drinking and banter. Soon they start comparing the virtues of their wives. One of them, Collatinus, attempts to end the debate by suggesting that they go to Rome to see for themselves: “in a few hours we can prove beyond doubt the incomparable superiority of my Lucretia … There is no better evidence, I assure you, than what a man finds when he enters his wife’s room unexpectedly.” The men leave the siege for Rome, where they discover their wives “enjoying themselves with a group of young friends at a dinner-party, in the greatest luxury.” Only Lucretia is absent, at home, “hard at work by lamplight upon her spinning.”
This unequivocal triumph of “womanly virtue” and “proven chastity,” Livy records, “kindled in Sextus Tarquinius the flame of lust, and determined him to debauch her.” He steals back to Rome a few days later and presents himself as a friendly guest at Lucretia’s house. He rapes her that night after telling her that if she does not consent, he will kill her and then destroy her reputation and that of her family by killing a slave and placing his naked body by her side. Lucretia subsequently summons her family to tell them what happened and then, over the protests of her relatives, kills herself after they vow to avenge the crime.
Livy turns the story into one of political liberation, as the tyrannical Tarquins, having violated every sacred bond with the people of Rome, are exiled so that the republic can be born. As the classicist James Arieti notes, rape consistently “precedes the major political developments” of Livy’s first books. “Tarquin’s ravishing strides,” to borrow Shakespeare’s phrase, become the emblem of tyranny. “My task from now on,” Livy writes, “will be to trace the history in peace and of a free nation, governed by annually elected officers of state and subject not to the caprice of individual men, but to the overriding authority of law.” Signally, it is the sight of Lucretia’s corpse that awakens the wrath of the people. Alive, she believes herself to be defamed: “a precedent for unchaste women to escape what they deserve.” Her act preserves the only kind of honor her society permits her: sexual. And it simultaneously enables Rome to regain its political honor. Lucretia’s shame dies with her, and she becomes an effective martyr to tyranny.
Steeling himself to murder Duncan, Macbeth conjures the image of the stalking Tarquin. In the same fevered soliloquy in which he imagines the dagger leading him on to the crime, Macbeth describes the night as the time of all that’s sinister: “Witchcraft celebrates / pale Hecate’s off’rings, and withered Murder, / Alarumed by his sentinel the wolf, / whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace, / With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design / Moves like a ghost.”
As my students discovered this spring in a seminar on Shakespeare, rape and murder are linked in Shakespeare’s imagination, both in Macbeth and in his own version of Lucretia’s story, the narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece. In Titus Andronicus, a revenge tragedy written near the beginning of his career, “Rape and Murder” even appear as allegorical figures in a strange performance late in the play, in which they are impersonated by two actual rapists, Chiron and Demetrius, the sons of Tamora, queen of the Goths. Disguised as “Revenge,” Tamora accompanies them to taunt Titus, the victorious general who originally brought them to Rome as defeated captives.
My students recognized immediately the ways in which sex and violence are intertwined on local and geopolitical levels in Titus. The play’s criminal excesses move from the rape and mutilation of Titus’s daughter Lavinia by Chiron and Demetrius to Titus’s subsequent vengeance, which includes killing the rapists and baking their flesh into a pie he serves their mother before killing her, too. Lavinia’s rape occurs in the second act, and it is referred to as rape by Titus and others. But the word is introduced in the play’s opening scene, the first time we see Lavinia. She is the object of a quarrel between the new Roman emperor, Saturninus, and his brother Bassianus, to whom Lavinia has been betrothed in the past. Saturninus suddenly decides he wants to marry Lavinia, however, and Bassianus runs away with her. Their confrontation hinges on semantics, something at which the cadets became increasingly adept:
SAT. Traitor, if Rome have law, or we have power,
Thou and thy faction shall repent this rape.
BASS. “Rape” call you it, my lord, to seize my own,
My true betrothed love and now my wife?
But let the laws of Rome determine all.
Meanwhile am I possessed of that is mine.
This linguistic struggle between the two Roman brothers over the definition of rape—and over their respective rights to seize Lavinia—foreshadows Lavinia’s actual rape. It also follows what one student called “the rape of the Goths”: they are brought in chains to Rome by Titus, “laden with honor’s spoils,” who kills Tamora’s eldest son as a “sacrifice of expiation” for the sons he lost in battle.
Lavinia is likened to Lucretia three times in the play, and after learning the identity of her rapists, Titus and Marcus swear to avenge her the way the Romans once avenged Lucretia. But in the end, Lavinia, who in a literal sense cannot die by her own hand—her rapists cut them off—is killed by Titus, whose sense of family honor, and of her shame, demands her death. She cannot live to serve as a reminder of his family’s humiliation. The grotesque attack on Lavinia serves many purposes, not the least of which was a kind of crowd-pleasing sensationalism, but it also works to mark out this rape as unambiguous. Here can be no lingering suspicion of Lavinia’s consent, as there is in the persistent cultural associations of rape with adultery, violated chastity, and shame—associations that Lucretia’s tale preserves and that predators, like Tarquinius, often use to their advantage in their crimes. Yet Lavinia, like Lucretia, must be sacrificed in the end to preserve honor among men.
The cadets were keenly attuned to the ways in which vanquished enemies and women more generally are silenced in the play’s exploration of male honor. They see all this so clearly in the strange and unfamiliar world of Titus Andronicus—a Renaissance Englishman’s layered imagining of ancient Rome. But do they see the subtler suggestions of women’s inferiority in their own culture: in the ideal of “the perfect gentleman” or the peculiar designation of “females” and the insidious sense of unworthiness that the term communicates?
In all sorts of official and unofficial ways, a preoccupation with male honor persists today in a force that is now in the process of integrating women into combat roles, the last bastions of male exclusivity within it. The most recent annual report on sexual assault in the military, released by the Department of Defense in May, estimates 14,900 victims, down from 20,300 in 2014. Reporting of incidents increased from 23 to 32 percent during the same period—37 percent of sexual assaults are reported to police nationally—while
32 percent of those responding asserted that the reporting process generated an outcome that met the department’s definition of retaliation: “professional reprisal, ostracism,
and/or maltreatment.” In March 2017, Helene Cooper reported in The New York Times on the increase of sexual assault at West Point and at another of the nation’s military academies, Annapolis. Cooper called particular attention to the problem of underreporting:
The Defense Department acknowledged that even as reports of sexual assaults increased, many young men and women who are assaulted do not report it. “Results from this year’s report demonstrate that estimated instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment greatly outnumber reports made to authorities,” Anthony M. Kurta, who is performing the duties of the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said in a letter to Congress submitting the report.
Men and women are both victims of sexual assault in the military, but women are much more likely to speak out. Forms of retaliation, according to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report, include making charges of “ ‘collateral misconduct,’ such as underage drinking or adultery,” against women who report being victims of sexual assault. Consensual and nonconsensual sexual behavior are linked in the military in a way they are not in civilian society because of the inclusion of adultery in the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s catchall Article 134, which prohibits “all disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces, all conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces, and crimes and offenses not capital.” The act of threatening an adultery charge against a woman who claims to have been raped can happen only in a culture that understands a woman’s honor in exclusively sexual terms. Moreover, officers who retaliate in this way and those who abet them clearly view the presence of victims rather than the perpetration of crimes as the greater insult to their honor.
Demonstrating the institution’s capacity for change, the current definition of consent in the Uniform Code of Military Justice is extensive and clearly designed to afford maximum protection to the victim. Unlike the punitive articles on dueling and conduct unbecoming a gentleman, Article 120, “Rape and Sexual Assault Generally,” has been extensively revised in recent years. Change in law is one thing, change in culture quite another. It has been the perceived failure of the military’s response to reports of sexual assault that has prompted lawmakers, led by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), to sponsor the Military Justice Improvement Act, which would transfer “the decision whether to prosecute serious crimes” from the military chain of command to “independent, trained, professional military prosecutors.”
I began by rehearsing the several ways that senior DOD officials have described sexual assault in their ranks: “Crisis,” “cancer,” “silent epidemic,” “stain [on] our force’s honor.” Too often—and not only or even primarily in recent history—that stain has attached to the victim rather than the perpetrator of rape. To transcend its own history, today’s military would do well to determine which aspects of its sense of honor are the vestiges of an ancient brutal code that cared more for dominance than the dignity of others, and which are worth the keeping.
The mission of DOD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office is “to enable military readiness and reduce—with a goal to eliminate—sexual assault from the military.” This mission statement and the training materials DOD employees regularly receive tend to emphasize corporate rationales: sexual assault distracts from the mission, reduces combat effectiveness, and erodes unit cohesion. Successful prevention and response are in turn described as “force multipliers.” But the strongest argument against sexual assault that the military can make isn’t that the crime’s existence makes it a less effective fighting force. If evidence suggested this or another crime made the military a more effective force, would we authorize those crimes?
Instead, the best argument rests on an acknowledgment of essential human dignity—the same acknowledgment that enabled President Lincoln and others to reimagine the nation’s founding promise as extending to all Americans rather than to an original few. The roots of such an argument can be found in the military’s own code—its repudiation of “acts of dishonesty, unfair dealing, indecency, indecorum, lawlessness, injustice, or cruelty.” But first some future reviser of the code must acknowledge that the “moral attributes common to the ideal officer” do not belong exclusively to “the perfect gentleman,” but might instead be embodied to an equal degree by anyone who elects to serve.
Elizabeth D. Samet is the editor of Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers and the author of three books, including Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. She is a professor of English at West Point. The opinions expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.