'Don't Turn Around'

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

BY: Debra Dickerson

 

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.

Having checked for `non volunteers' in that scenario was key, I believe (which is why Tailhook was such a travesty). My duty as an officer, a woman and a human being would have required nothing less. How any woman could participate in the kind of degradation those prisoners were subjected to, especially when female GIs are at such risk of being raped and sexually humiliated themselves, is beyond me. So I guess I'm not as feminist as I thought. As for the GIs involved generally, my mind simply boggles. I can not understand how you can wear the uniform and behave like Saddam Hussein. I once yelled at a GI for walking around the mall with his sunglasses tucked into his collar, I once had a Marine bite my head off for offering him an umbrella in the pouring rain, and these losers are posing in uniform in front of torture victims? Grinning? I'd been thinking they should be turned over to the Iraqi courts. Now, I think - a court composed of present and former GIs. I'd love to have a crack at them. They'd never see blue sky again.

I've been out since 1992; has the military changed that much? Once President Clinton was elected, I was appalled by how politicized GIs had become and how disrespectful of our Commander in Chief. I served during both Reagan terms and the first Bush's, and I'm a big fat liberal, but I'd have torn my tongue out rather than bad mouth them. Respect the rank, not the man, or so we used to be taught. As a civilian, I have sorely missed living in a world where `duty, honor, country' were concepts invoked nearly daily without irony or fear of belittlement. Is there no place now, in American life, where these things are true? If I sound broken hearted, I am. I dedicated my memoir to my parents and the Air Force. I've always warned my husband that I intend to propagandize our kids to give their country at least one hitch. Between the rape scandals and now this, I'm not so sure anymore. This cuts me to the bone.

Usually, I write about race and often make the tongue-in-cheek argument that people commit the kinds of crimes that are available to them. Whites use computers to steal because they have access to them. Blacks use guns or crowbars for the same reason. So, we'll know true racial progress has occurred when there are black CEOs facing WorldCom/Enron type indictments. I suppose that female participation in male-associated crimes can be seen as sad evidence of female advancement. However will they live with the shame?

I repeat: the military isn't feminized enough and that includes the females.

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