Hopeful Developments for Women In the U.S. Military

Sarah Wagner

After last year’s remarkable documentary “The Invisible War” – nominated for an Academy Award this year – it is understandable if the shocking account of sexual assault in the military left many viewers cynical about the current state of women in the U.S. military. And yet, even though many troublesome indicators and incidents are still taking place, it is vital to point out how the situation for women in the military is changing for the better, especially in regards to the public debate and the institutional changes being initiated for women in combat. While there is still a long way to go, these signs are promising for an overall improvement of women’s status in the field of international security.

The statistics for rape and other forms of sexual assault in the military are staggering, with the rate of violent sex crimes having increased over the past years. The Department of Defense notes 3,192 reports of sexual assault for fiscal year 2011 of which a large amount – 2,439 – were unrestricted reports, meaning that they resulted in a notification of command and the launch of investigative procedures. 753 reports were restricted reports, meaning that the victim’s request for confidentiality prevented a notification of command.

Even though the number of unreported assaults needs to be taken into account, the focus should be on restricted reports, potentially indicating institutional challenges addressed in “Invisible War”. Filing a restricted report is often due to fear of reprisal within the unit or squadron –  against the victim – a testosterone-fueled cultural context, or lack of resources. Dedicated and strong leadership from military officials is especially needed to change this institutional mindset. Yet this will remain a challenge as long as high-ranking officials or instructors are themselves at the center of sexual assault scandals, for example at Lackland Air Force Base.

However, in the aftermath of the documentary, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin E. Dempsey not only publicly addressed the issue but also announced several policy changes. Among these initiatives were the establishment within each branch of a special sexual assault unit, the enhancement of  prevention training programs – for example training new military commanders how to handle sexual assault cases -, and the expansion of resources such as help hotlines and the elevation of the level of investigation for certain allegations. While the solution cannot lie in more Power Point presentations to soldiers, a stronger focus on the judicial handling of such cases will hopefully send a stronger message. Clearly, these measures alone will not suffice if they are unaccompanied by a change in mindset within the chain of command and among troops. However, they are a promising step in the right direction.

Even more importantly, the public scrutiny caused by the documentary, and the response of defense and civilian officials are a strong reminder that change is not only possible but that sexual assault within the military is an issue which should not be relegated to the military alone. Civil society has a vested interest in a functioning and professional military and thus a responsibility to show no tolerance in cases of sexual assault.

In addition to officials debating and enacting new sexual assault policies, a change in policy concerning women in combat is as of late also on the horizon. Technically, in an age of asymmetric warfare where IEDs and insurgents do not discriminate in terms of gender, women are already in combat. Though women are officially still barred from infantry combat in the U.S. military, even support positions have become increasingly dangerous for them. This is one of the main arguments, next to the more traditional equal opportunity argument, for female service members to demand access to off-limit jobs. Another factor involves promotions, which are often out of the question because women do not have the necessary combat experience or qualifications needed. Recently, the debate has focused on whether women in the armed services are physically capable to hold such demanding positions and whether they even want it. The recent dropout of the two women participating in the Marines’ officer infantry training is just one often cited example.

Whether or not overwhelming numbers of women suddenly want to participate in the infantry is not the crucial point. Rather it is that capable women who do want to serve are not banned from it solely because of their gender. In recent years, more and more professions previously limited to males have opened up for females, be it serving on submarines or in selected combat arms units. This development will now continue according to defense and Pentagon officials.  After all, women in the Army are now testing body armor specifically fitted to women so that in the future, they do not have to wear the loose armor of their male counterparts.

Another positive step forward is the plan to create a gender-neutral fitness test in order to assess the capabilities of males and females, even though the question remains whether such a test is indeed neutral or just asks females to match the male requirements. Nevertheless, the recent changes by outgoing defense secretary Panetta will have a great impact on women in the security sector and send a clear message in gender equality.

Many cultural and institutional challenges remain for women in the U.S. military. At the same time, progress is being made on many fronts, be it preventing sexual assault or pushing the boundary of professional roles. Most importantly, the struggles and debates within the armed forces are also relevant for civil society;  they mirror many civilian issues and directly affect questions of military readiness and security.

Sarah Wagner studies Political Science at the University of Trier, Germany. She recently finished a stint as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Nebraska-Omaha where she conducted research at the Center for Afghanistan Studies. Her work focuses on civil-military relations.

Further Reading:

Christian Science Monitor. “Pentagon Report: Sexual Assault in the Military Up Dramatically.” (19 January 2012)
Department of Defense. “Fact Sheet on Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military” (2012)
Military Times. “USMC 4-Star: Women to Attend Infantry School” (April 18 2012)
The Wrap. “Military Rape Documentary ‘Invisible War’ Leads to Policy Changes Before Its Opening” (June 18 2012)