Late last year, the Air Force began a sweep through its installations around the world looking for items that fell into the broad category of “unprofessional.” The investigations found more than 32,000 such treasures. Not a small number of the offending objects were sexually offensive: an embarrassing collection of pornographic magazines, calendars, videos and other trashy depictions of women.
It may be no coincidence that the sweep happened shortly before news leaked that the Pentagon would lift the ban on women taking part directly in combat. Men will have little choice but to behave differently when women are fully included and respected as equals. Professional standards will have to change.
For too long, portions of the military have continued to be a “no girls allowed” clubhouse. Change that, and the disgusting institutional culture of misogyny will be pushed to change as well.
The extent of the problem isn’t just a bunch of overgrown boys ogling girlie magazines. Consider the scandals at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where all airmen report for boot camp. There, 32 basic training instructors have been accused of inappropriate conduct, including sexual harassment and assaults on more than 50 women and three men. Eight have been convicted, including a sergeant who was sentenced to 20 years for rape and sexual assault. Nine court-martials are pending and 15 other cases are under investigation.
Testimony this month before the House Armed Services Committee highlighted an ugly reality at Lackland. Women in military service risk experiencing post traumatic stress disorder, not only from the combat they sign up for but also from being sexually attacked or harassed by their fellows and their instructors. The hearings also provided testimony to the numerous sexual attacks on male victims.
Lackland obviously isn’t the first scandal of this sort. And the infamous Tailhook incident in 1991 revealed stories of drunken aviators forcing women down a hallway where they were repeatedly groped.
According to the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, a U.S. Department of Defense survey of active-duty members found that only 13.5 percent of sexual assaults within the services were reported in 2010. The true number is more than 19,000 annually.
For some, those incidents give weight to the idea that women do not belong in the armed forces. Consider Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton, who recently commented in a radio interview that women’s “natures” can hamper the missions of their units.
Cotton needs to check with the families of the 152 women who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. They can detail what military duties their daughters, sisters and wives completed before making the ultimate sacrifice.
Like other naysayers, Cotton needs to realize that lifting the ban on direct combat is not a politically correct effort at social engineering. It’s about career. Pay and rank are linked to what jobs people can apply for in the military. More than 230,000 new positions potentially just opened up for women. Each combat role will be assessed to see if it’s feasible to include women, and some elite units may continue to be male-only.
The Pentagon is stressing that qualifying standards will be gender-neutral, meaning that both sexes will have to meet the same strength and fitness requirements. That’s fair.
But let’s recognize that old concepts of fitness for the front lines changed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the recent conflicts, women have already stepped into roles that might have previously been considered front-line. Intelligence gathering is one where women have shown particular skill.
Yet because they were banned from some combat roles, women in the military faced those dangers without a chance at receiving the career-building accolades and pay that would otherwise have coincided with their service.
If that sounds unfair to you, congratulations on your enlightenment. You are seeing things as clearly as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who recommended lifting the ban.
The chiefs know their service members. Women have already proved their stamina and valor in direct combat roles. Lifting the ban will align military policy with that reality. Sadly, women’s greatest ongoing battle will be slowly gaining their due respect from more of their male peers.
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