I keep coming across articles written by Anu Bhagwati, a female Captain USMC vet, big time role model, and Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) aficionado. My response to one of her articles is below.
Recently, I have found several of your wonderful articles while I’ve been researching other topics. This is yet another one that succinctly and adeptly addresses multiple issues about women in the military. I, too, am USMC Captain veteran who experienced years of harassment while I was in the Corps. Also, I was raped by a fellow Marine. I don’t see myself as a victim, although, by all definitions I was one. It happened in 2003, so with eight years of separation it’s easy for me to say now that I identify what happened to me as wrong, but that I’ve healed, moved on, made my peace with it. I know that wasn’t how I felt for a good couple of years afterwards, but either way, then or now, I never wanted or want pity. If anything, I wanted understanding. The crazy thing is that reporting the rape was almost worse than the actual experience itself, and the administrative aspect of this whole issue is where I think the system still needs the most work. When you said “The focus on portraying poor or ignorant girls from the hood rescued by recruiters, or naïve daughters of military-loving, flag-waving families, plays into misplaced audience pity–and triggers deep-seated cultural insecurities about women’s presence in the military–instead of serving military women themselves. Few real-life female soldiers actually see themselves as victims, so why should we?” you hit the nail on the head. Not everyone who joins is an extremist, a victim, or looking for a way out; certainly, some are, but like you said, the play you reference seems to be propagating that as the norm. Moreover, just because someone was a victim of abuse before entering the military, doesn’t mean that’s WHY they join. I think that’s great when women are able to mentor one another when they discover other abuse/assault victims among their female comrades, but sometimes there does seem to be an overemphasis on this connection. Conceptually, I think the victim-hood discussion is similar to your comment “Among the white servicewomen chosen for portrayal are brainwashed daughters of right-wing, America-loving zealots. For example, one character, a Bible-thumping small-town teenager as gung-ho and out of place as Mother Theresa in camouflage, can’t wait to do “God’s work” in the Army. But the reality is that many troops cross faith with service to one’s country without becoming ignorant crusaders or overzealous missionaries.” I felt called to the Marine Corps myself, but not in the sense of needing to embark on a Crusade. I simply felt that God wanted me in the Marine Corps because that was where I was supposed to be at that point in my life both personally and professionally.
I haven’t seen the play about which you wrote the article, but I have read many articles and seen many interviews that portray the same basic idea you express here: “Despite these steps in the right direction, I can’t help but writhe at the script’s tendency to fall into familiar patterns of stereotyping servicewomen. Benedict focuses on troops who have been particularly traumatized by life. But there are just as many real life recruits who sign up for military service because they are bored, or are naturally drawn to the rigors of military discipline. In addition, Benedict’s left-leaning sympathies seem to keep her from an accurately nuanced representation of military culture.” Even having personally experienced both trauma and triumph in the Marine Corps, it is difficult to talk about the bad without people (whether left-leaning or not) honing in on the distress. It’s hard to express having been a victim because it’s almost always a double edged sword – you can talk about it and offer an example of survival to other victims or feel the cathartic benefits of verbalizing what happened to you… but you will almost always end up judged or pitied, or sometimes both.
It is disappointing to see women vets bow to PC demands when asked about how women are treated in the military. I just watched yet another TV interview of a female vet who was asked about the treatment of women in the military; she answered in vanilla verses. “Well, if you work hard, you are treated fairly.” I scoffed. It’s not that hard work isn’t respected, but there is not a linear relationship between work ethic and professional reward. You don’t always see the best women getting the most respect. In fact, I frequently observed the strongest women getting treated the worst because those were the women the men were the most threatened by! A lot of men join the Corps to prove, in some respects, how manly they are; therefore, when they witness a woman completing the exact same physical tasks they are, it’s as if they can’t process it. I’m not saying every single woman in every single service has been harassed, abused, and/or raped, but many have and should not feel ashamed to say so. I know why they don’t though. They don’t want to look like complainers – by men or women. They don’t want to look weak. They don’t want to badmouth the service they were proud to serve. They don’t want to look unappreciative of the opportunities afforded them while serving. I didn’t want to do any of those things either. If a woman feels as though she will lose the respect of her peers for speaking up – whether it be about something “minor” like harassment or something major like rape – then the intentional and unintentional suppression of reporting these incidents will continue.
Furthermore, I believe one reason cases of harassment/assault of women in the military is seemingly over-reported is because the military purposely claims to hold itself to higher standards of conduct than the general public and many people join for that very reason – to be a part of something perceived as better. We are told over and over again, particularly in the Marine Corps, the few the proud….so why shouldn’t we be disenchanted and outraged then when that standard is grossly violated?
Above all, my hope is that we – women, men, active duty, vets, civilians – continue to evolve in a positive direction to where we can strike a balance in our reactions to the abuses women do suffer in the military.