Not So Safe Back Home

When the news broke that the rape of female cadets had become nearly as commonplace at the Air Force Academy as midterms or maneuvers, it came as a shock to most Americans accustomed to thinking of the service colleges as bastions of the very best.

But for those familiar with sexual assault in the military, and the role of women in the armed forces, the horrifying stories had an inevitable tinge of same-old same-old. And the administration reaction, of distress and the determination to make things right, had the scent of both hyperbole and hypocrisy.

There are surely those who think that this moment, with soldiers in the Iraqi desert and an internationally unpopular war being waged by the United States, may not be the best time to talk about the institutionalized prejudice in the nation's fighting forces.

But it is exactly the right time.

In times of peace the powers that be may conveniently forget how many women there now are on the battlefield, how hard they work and how well they perform. Military leaders may forget that if the number of women willing to enlist drops significantly, the ability of America to defend itself will drop significantly, too.

And they may forget how terrible it is that women who must face sexual assault from the enemy as the price of war too often expect to face it from their compatriots in peacetime. As a colonel in the Air Force whose daughter says she was attacked by a fellow cadet told The New York Times, "She knew she could have been captured by an enemy, raped and pillaged in war. She did not expect to be raped and pillaged at the United States Air Force Academy."

In fact, no soldier should expect to be assaulted by another without significant consequences. Yet that is what has happened. Those who have always been hostile to female soldiers say that this is inevitable, given the atmosphere of esprit with which women interfere, given the machismo that is essential for trained fighting forces. This is insulting to male soldiers. The suggestion is that they are always one beer away from a sexual assault, no more able to control their violent impulses than an attack dog.

The truth is quite different. Sexual trauma has reached epidemic proportions for women in the military--with numbers twice as high as in the civilian population, according to a Department of Defense study--because it can. The offense is not adequately investigated or punished. And the authorities send down the word by their response, and their nonresponse: sit down and shut up.

This is not only morally wrong; it will inevitably weaken the country's fighting forces. If the word is out that, as one young woman has suggested, an institution like the Academy is a place where being sexually assaulted is taken for granted, women of intelligence and ambition will look elsewhere. The Pentagon has announced that the top officials of the Air Force Academy will be replaced in an effort to change the school's culture. But it's the broader military culture that needs to change where women are concerned.

They know that there's already a khaki ceiling. The ladder to the top jobs has to include combat positions, yet women are still formally prohibited from most combat units. (This although the lines between deployments is so thin as to be semipermeable; Shoshana Johnson, now a prisoner of war, was sent to Iraq as a cook.) The group that lobbied for a change in the combat ban, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, has been weakened by the Bush administration, swayed by conservative critics who howled about its "feminist agenda." Among the new female voices in the Pentagon is one former master sergeant who opposes women in combat because "women enjoy being protected by men." She says that the skills needed for fighting are "to survive, to escape and to evade," adding, "Clearly, women don't have those as a rule."

Actually, it sounds as if those are exactly the skills women have had to acquire to fend off sexual abuse and harassment by their colleagues. Many of them may have listened with bitterness when the president, announcing the start of this war, promised the Iraqi people they would be free from "rape rooms," given the fact that for some of them the rape rooms have been their own barracks.

As their sisters did in Desert Storm, many will return from the Middle East, having served in combat despite the ban, with an official wink and a nod. Maybe it's the same wink and a nod you get after you've been pinned down and penetrated by a fellow cadet, the one that says you have to go along to get along.

If this is a nation that uses female soldiers to defend us but is unwilling to defend them in turn, the numbers of ambitious women in the service may dwindle. That will satisfy those who hanker for old, traditional sex roles. It will also mean a fighting force that has lost its very best prospects. Who could blame them? Sacrificing your life for your country is one thing. Sacrificing your body for bureaucratic convenience and antediluvian attitudes is something else.