'Don't Turn Around'

The author of 'An American Story' says Abu Ghraib shows women haven't feminized the military enough

Reprinted with permission from The Washington Monthly.com

So much for the feminization of the military, eh?

As surprised as I was to learn that GIs were abusing prisoners, nothing floored me as much as seeing the grinning faces of women gleefully celebrating torture of the helpless (however complicit in terrorism they might be). I take pride in being an unapologetic feminist (why not? The world is unapologetically sexist.) but maybe I shouldn't. Without those photos, not only would I have been difficult to convince that the abuse happened, I would never have believed that women participated. So perhaps the problem isn't the military's feminization but its lack of it.

In my memoir, "An American Story," I spend a fair amount of time recounting how I spent the first few years of my 12 in the Air Force trying my damndest to be one of the boys. I started smoking, drank like an idiot, cursed like a sailor, always wore fatigues and combat boots, didn't carry a purse. Even wore a man's watch. Once, when they took me to a club (in 1981 South Korea) which hosted live sex shows, I refused to punk out and leave until after the first `act.' Longest half hour of my life but I was too bought into my macho new environment, the environment which was oh so much more empowering than the misogynist ghetto I was fleeing from, to back off from any of it. I told myself that keeping up with the men, whatever they were doing, was feminist.


After a few years, though, I rebelled, if only in my personal comportment, and determined to be both female and a GI. The turning point was at an O Club function filled with `pit vipers' (civilian women looking for GI husbands and willing to go pretty far to do so). Suddenly, I heard the drunken yelling crescendo behind me. The eyes on the guys I was talking to had grown wide as goose eggs. I turned to look, but one of my non comms stopped me. He said, "LT. Don't turn around. Just don't." A few years before, that admonition alone would have made me look so I could appear cool and un-girly. I thought about it for a moment, listened for screams of non compliance. "They're all volunteers, don't worry," one guy reassured me. He extended his arm, I took it, and three of the guys who worked for me walked me to my billet. They wanted no part of it either.

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Debra Dickerson
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