Women from the US Resist War in the Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq

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Conscription of men ended in 1973 in the USA, which now has an all-volunteer military. A well-funded system is used to convince young people to join. Annual funding for recruiting and retention programs more than doubled from 2003 to 2007, from US$3.4 billion to US$7.7 billion. Presently women make up about 15% of the military, nearly a half a million of the 3 million soldiers in the combined Armed Forces; 11% of the total force deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan is women [1]. Although women are officially banned from combat duty (a policy that the military uses to recruit women), the reality is that every position in wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan is a combat position.

There are many reasons women go into the military. Stephanie Atkinson and Tina Garnanez, while they enlisted almost 20 years apart from each other, both write of coming from low-income families with few opportunities and being unclear about what they wanted to do. These young people are easy targets for military recruiters.

Anita Cole and Diedra Cobb, who had both gone to college before entering, wrote that they believed going into the military was a way to serve their country and “sacrifice for the greater good”, a theme promoted in ads for the military.

Each of the women had to make a difficult decision as their opposition to war grew. Katherine Jashinski's statement reflects what they all decided when she said, “I will not compromise my beliefs for any reason.” There were consequences to their varied actions.

Stephanie Atkinson and Diedra Cobb were both asked to write for this anthology, which they found painful to do. Stephanie said, “I struggle considerably to tell the story of my experience.” “Sometimes I don't know if want to revisit this story again”, wrote Diedra. For Diedra that includes mentioning that she was sexually assaulted in the barracks. Rape is a serious threat to women in the military. Government surveys have shown that almost a third of women in the military are sexually assaulted.

Both of them are clear how difficult it is to be questioning the military while in it. As Stephanie tells us, “It would be years after my resistance that I began to educate myself and be able to understand intellectually what I only felt ill-at-ease with.” She points to Cynthia Enloe's writings as a good source of information on nationalism and masculinity from a feminist perspective. Stephanie was asked if she could write more about that, but she felt that was another chapter that she couldn't do for this book. However, she did talk about what she called the “hyper-masculinized culture of the military.” The message to women in the military, she explained, is: “I will allow you to be here but you will always be the Other.” There is a level of femininity that is non-threatening to this culture, but not all women fit that.

An August 2008 Government Accountability Office Report found that the military's efforts to combat sexual violence had been hampered by a lack of support from some senior commanders. Many women in the military report that there is a high incidents of sexual assault by higher ranking men and commanders.

“The Pentagon's latest figures show that nearly 3,000 women were sexually assaulted in fiscal year 2008, up 9% from the year before; among women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number rose by 25%. When you look at the entire universe of female victims, close to a third say they were victims of rape or assault while they were serving — twice the rate of the civilian population.” [2]

A woman who experienced such abuse was unable to write about it, although she tried. Jessica (who prefers her surname not be used) first told her story publicly at a vigil for gays and lesbians who had been victims of violence. Most of the stories told that night were about others, people who did not survive the homophobic abuse. But Jessica told her own story. When she was in the military she had gone to a gay bar, went out for air, and was kidnapped and raped by her drill sergeants, strangled and left for dead. High school students who were actively involved in countering military recruitment at their school asked her to talk to their YouthPeace group, which she did.

Jessica went into the military in her early twenties, having worked as a personal fitness trainer. She was physically strong, and therefore threatening to the men in the military. Jessica was harassed from the the beginning of Basic Training. She told how she survived the rape and strangulation, how documents regarding the incident were stolen from her locker and she was sent to another base to go back through basic training. Jessica suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which was not treated in the military. Jessica was targeted because, as Stephanie described, she did not meet the hyper-masculinized military culture's “level of femininity”. After a year of horrendous abuse Jessica was able to leave the military with money that allowed her to go to college and get the help she needs for the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But Jessica found it too painful to write her story. She hopes that she will some day be able to, but needs to give herself more time to heal.

In this section you will read about women who enlisted in the military over a 20-year period, from those who were faced with the first Gulf War, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They tell of the changes they experienced during basic training, as they were influenced by what they read, learned about the US role in the world, were given weapons, and confronted the reality of war and killing. While they each have their own story of how they came to oppose war, and how they left the military, there are similarities in their experiences that are shared by many others whose stories have not been told.

Introduction by Joanne Sheehan, War Resisters League

Footnotes

[1] Budget figures: The Washington Post, May 11, 2009. All figures of numbers in the military from US Department of Defense, 2009
[2] The War Within by Nancy Gibbs, Time Magazine, March 8, 2010

Published in Women Conscientious Objectors - An Anthology

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