Yesterday was Suzanne Swift’s 22nd birthday. She is the soldier who refused to go back to Iraq with her unit and was arrested last month at her home in Eugene, Oregon. That’s three Fort Lewis, Washington soldiers who have refused to go, for three different reasons. Kevin Benderman came to believe that all war is wrong and filed for Conscientious Objector status, which was denied. He is now serving time in the Fort Lewis brig. Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused to go because the Iraq war violates international law and the Geneva Conventions both in its inception and in the way it is being prosecuted, is awaiting court martial.
Suzanne Swift is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and could not bring herself to go back to Iraq with the same unit where she had been sexually harassed and a victim of what they call “command rape”. That is where your commanding officer coerces you into having sex.
The relationship between a ordinary soldier and her Sergeant is inherently unequal. Any boss-subordinate relationship is unequal, which is why most companies have policies against dating in that situation. If a romance develops, then one of the parties involved has to quit, or at least transfer to another department. There is just too much temptation for abuse of the situation. A boss can easily give special favors, promotions, or overlook poor work if their judgment is clouded by romance. On the other hand, an unscrupulous boss can promise favorable treatment in exchange for sex and has considerable power to punish a subordinate who refuses, or when the romance goes bad. People have been fired for refusing to put out. Even if there are no special favors or punishments there is often a perception that there is. That perception hurts morale and can be coercive in itself. That is why companies have policies against sexual harassment and set up a mechanism outside of the regular hierarchy for reporting and investigating abuses.
In the military, and especially in a combat zone, the same problems exist, only to an extreme level. The military isn’t just a job, its your whole life. Your commander has tremendous power to reward or punish you. In a combat zone, it can mean endangering your life by getting the worst assignments. Spc. Swift refused two sergeants who propositioned her but was coerced into sex with a third. She said, “They treat you like a dog if you refuse and it’s worse if you agree.”
The military has a policy against harassment, but it is not always enforced. Swift did report the harassment but nothing happened, except that things got worse for her, as she was singled out for humiliating treatment and continued demands for sex.
The Pentagon's Joint Task Force on Sexual Abuse in 2004 found widespread abuse in the military, which is not a surprise to women who have served. Estimates are that as many as 2/3 of women, and almost 1/3 of the men in the service are victims of sexual harassment, much of which goes unreported because the military response is often to further harass the victim, rather than punish the perpetrator. As Colleen Mussolino, co-founder of Women Veterans of America (WVA), an advocacy group for women veterans, was quoted as saying about her experience after being raped in "Female Soldiers Treated Lower Than Dirt", by Rose Aguilar, "I was taken by the criminal investigation team and treated like a prisoner of war for six weeks with threats. I finally signed a paper promising that I wouldn't prosecute.” Some female soldiers in Iraq were so worried about being assaulted going to the latrines at night that they wouldn't drink water late in the day and subsequently died of dehydration, according to Col. Janis Karpinski. Perpetrators usually face no consequences, or are simply transferred to another base.
Swift’s mother, Sara Rich, who is leading the fight to protect her daughter, is calling for implementation of the Task Force’s recommendations, an investigation of Swift’s abuse, prosecution of the guilty parties and an honorable discharge. Since this case has received publicity, the Army has started an investigation. It remains to be seen how far it will go but Rich hopes that continued public support for her daughter will force the Army to treat this seriously. It was with this in mind that she celebrated Suzanne’s birthday with a rally, support banners on I-5 and a press conference at the entrance to Fort Lewis.
This isn’t really an anti-war issue and I don’t know what Suzanne Swift thinks, although Sara Rich is against the war and a member of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) and most, if not all, the supporters who turned up at Fort Lewis were anti-war. People who believe that the war is necessary should be outraged at this abuse of soldiers who are risking their lives on our behalf. It undermines the effectiveness of the war effort. In a situation where everything depends on the mutual trust and unit cohesion necessary to be successful in their mission, this kind of abuse of authority can be deadly. It undermines respect for authority and drives away potential recruits.
The War Resisters League(WRL) in a pamphlet entitled “Battered by the Military” states, “Violence against women is not only an accepted part of military culture but an integral component in the training that desensitizes soldiers to violence and killing.” They go on to say, “If you think the military is an option, before enlisting ... Ask yourself whether you want to be part of a system that causes physical, emotional and psychological trauma to both women and men.”
Here is another article that goes a little deeper
Why Soldiers Rape
Culture of misogyny, illegal occupation, fuel sexual violence in military
GI Rights Hotline 1-800-394-9544
The Miles Foundation is a private, non-profit organization providing comprehensive services to victims of violence associated with the military
STAMP Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel 1-866-879-2568