Monday, August 04, 2008

who killed LaVena Johnson?

These are the dots I want people to connect:

Aberdeen Proving Grounds
The Air Force Academy scandal (the resulting report can be found here)
The case of Pvt. Steven D. Green
This NYTimes series on violent death among Iraq War vets
This Feminist Law Professors post
Jamie Leigh Jones and the 'rape problem' with military contractors

To that string of dots, add one more: LaVena Johnson

I think a primary value of feminist work is its ability to uncover women's hidden history, the stories of our existence that tend not to fit neatly in our national or cultural, patriarchal narratives. The stories of women in our military, as well as the women connected to associated industries that support or benefit from the military's work, are taking shape before our eyes and a repeating thread in this narrative is one of sexual assault and brutal violence against women.

(This isn't to say men aren't assaulted; they are, at much smaller numbers. I'm just not writing about sexual assault against military men right now.)

From the testimony of the women at Tailhook after the first Gulf War to the stories from KBR contractors in this latest Iraq conflict, the lives of women linked to the military - as family members, government employees, soldiers, or contractors - is bracketed by sexual or domestic violence. Perhaps, as the Times series sugggested, we can attribute some of this violence to inadequately treated combat trauma. In the Frontline site for the Tailhook investigation, some male officers and attendees attributed some of the behavior by the aviators and officers to post-Gulf combat relief; in other words, they were 'blowing off steam' - and what better way to blow off combat stress than violating women's bodies?

It's clear the military, despite lip service to the contrary after every sexual assault scandal at their proving grounds, academies and bases, has no capacity to deal with the needs of military/civilian women who've been assaulted or harrassed within, or by, the military. Their reporting structure is broken, their punishment structure is an utter failure and their treatment/prevention capabilities seem to be non-existent, despite their best intentions.

About these intentions: after the worst stories broke (especially the Air Force Academy scandal) there was an attempt to improve the military's metrics on sexual assault. Sexual assault trainings and awareness programs were implemented; oversight committees were formed; victims names would be kept anonymous, cutting down on the threat of reprisals; greater efforts would be made to collect and analyze evidence and counseling supports would be made readily available to victims of assault. These improvements seem to send a strong message that sexual assault in the military is unacceptable. But the chances that such a message will drift down to service members is slim. Frankly, it's not in the military's nature to change.

What is it that makes the military what it is, that allows it to do what it does? The military accepts violence as a suitable human, cultural and national response; it creates an environment that feeds on a sense of overweening Masculine privilege; and what makes all of this aggression and privilege acceptable and not merely psychotic is the body of a woman. Whether it is the feminized 'body' of the nation they invade or the bodies of assaulted female soldiers or civilians left in its wake, our military clearly requires the Othered, violated bodies of women to keep a grip on its GI Joe identity. The subjugation of a woman in order to retain the fiction of masculine 'wholeness' is, to me, a function of patriarchy.

(If this sounds familiar, it's because I said something like it in a post about Joe Francis and the Steven D. Green case here.)

In the stories patriarchy tells of us, a woman's position is primarily prone. We serve patriarchy either on our backs or we prop it up by conveniently and quietly dying. LaVena Johnson's death was not quiet. She was raped, beaten, tortured, murdered and her body burned. Despite physical evidence to the contrary, the army still calls her a suicide, a bootstrapped Dido. Her family is being lied to about the circumstances surrounding her death and the wall of silence around her murder is not just about the military's need to maintain a modicum of public relations discipline (though that's certainly part of it.) The military's silence is also the silence of complicity and it needs to be broken, cracked into pieces for the sake of justice.

(If you want to know what to do about LaVena Johnson's murder, visit here.)

I used to think that whatever men could do, women could do, too. But LaVena Johnson's rape and death, along with all the other military women's deaths and rapes, prompts me to ask a potentially un-feminist and problematic question: Why should we? Why should women even serve in the military when it's clear the eminent danger they face isn't from combat but their male cohort?

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