Monday, March 12, 2007

Women and the Culture of the Military

As I've been reading about Pfc. LaVena Johnson's suspicious death and the situation for female troops in Iraq,

(from a Salon article on the matter) I have talked to more than 20 female veterans of the Iraq war in the past few months, interviewing them for up to 10 hours each for a book I am writing on the topic, and every one of them said the danger of rape by other soldiers is so widely recognized in Iraq that their officers routinely told them not to go to the latrines or showers without another woman for protection.
it has taken me back a couple years to my time teaching at the United States Naval Academy. After a some high profile scandals, the Academy decided to create a mandatory ethics course for all midshipmen (even the women there are called midshipmen).

Architecturally, the class (at least as it was taught then) was the pedagogical version of the Hindenburg. It is a Monday, Wednesday, Friday class with Monday being a large lecture hall lecture from a philosopher on the moral system of the week, Aristotle's virtue ethics, Kant's deontological approach, utilitarianism, the usual stuff. Wednesday and Friday were smaller "breakout sections" led by naval officers whose training in the material was a one hour meeting earlier in the week in an instructor's group session led by the philosopher. That means that someone with one hour's worth of training was leading two hours worth of discussion about some tricky philosophy he or she had no background in and in many cases was openly hostile towards because this course was new and anything that wasn't there "when I was at the Academy" is surely bullshit designed only make things easier than I had it. So you had the least successful means of teaching philosophy, the large hall lecture paired with unqualified, sometimes hostile lecturers for the majority of the class.

I was brought in over the summer to try to develop some auxiliary materials for the course -- case studies, role playing exercises, film clips with discussion questions -- activities for the officers to help them set up their sections. My natural inclination, of course, was to tie the theoretical questions to issues that would be more easily grasped. Illustrate the conflicts in action and then allow the step to the more abstract level. So in my search for issues around rights-based ethics, I took a clip from the film The People vs. Larry Flint. It seemed a good way to begin an obvious discussion around the possible limits of even very desirable rights like free speech. A colleague vetoed it quickly telling me that they were told in no uncertain terms that pornography was not an issue that they could discuss in moral terms. It was off-limits. Why? Because they had a bunch of eighteen to twenty-one year olds with hormones shooting through the roof and no constructive way to express their sexuality. As a result, there were unhealthy ways and they weren't to be mentioned.

So you take a situation where you have a hyper-charged testosterone-laden culture that is still bitter about having to make the Academy co-ed and protect the sort of male dominant picture of sexuality present in porn and then wonder how these things happen. Those at the Academy, after all, are not just ordinary members of the service, they will be officers on the track towards high leadership. These are the people who shape and enforce the culture.

The conservative reply to the report out of Iraq will no doubt be just like the ones I heard at the Academy around the time of the Tailhook scandal (also something that was not to be discussed -- the head of the Leadership, Ethics, and Law section at the time was an aviator) -- will be the "few bad apples" line, the same approach we saw in response to Abu Ghraib, Enron, and every other major ethical scandal of the last several years. further, it is also the reason behind all of their "personal responsibility" rhetoric -- the idea is that if we can look only at the responsibility of the individual actor, we are no longer in a place to ask about how we who are not acting need to pitch in. If THEY did it, I must be responsibility free and therefore don't have to do anything but smugly consider myself superior.

Now, on the one hand, it is perfectly true that not every male in the service is part of this problem and it is further absolutely correct that those culpable ought to be held responsible. But what we are seeing here again is an example of the classic conservative rhetorical move to restrict the scope of the discussion. By focusing only on the most immediate actors, it keeps us from asking about the larger social causes because they would then require larger social fixes. It is a simple fact that people conform their behavior to cultural expectations and every group has cultural norms. This fact does not excuse people when they act in a way that is immoral, but encouraged by the culture, but it does mean that we ought to do our best to change the social expectations operative in the culture. Sociology is a real study and social effects are real.

This problem is certainly a problem with a subset of the troops, but the behavior of these members of the military occurs in a context where they believe that their behavior is protected, where they believe that their status as dominant is deserved and safe, where the underlying presuppositions about women are actively reinforced. There is a hostile ENVIRONMENT and that environment is not only the result of the acts of individuals, but a result of a culture that has been fostered, a culture that can, and must, change.