Both at home and on the world stage, the military personnel of the US Armed Forces play an active role in matters ranging from the war on terrorism to natural disasters. Moreover, the US Armed Forces have, since the American revolutionary war in 1776, fought against a myriad of enemies. One war however, is fought within its own ranks, better known as “The Invisible War”.
Counting from 1776 the USA has seen 21 calendar years in which war was absent. This reflects its military spending – the USA has by far the highest military budget in the world. According to SIPRI’s military expenditure database, it totalled up to 640,221 million dollars in 2014, which is triple the amount of that China spends on military expenditure (188,640 million USD). The USA’s military expenditure nearly equals its entire spending on social security or Medicare and Medicaid combined. The US army, which is the largest service branch in terms of employment, employs over half a million people that are on active duty. Needless to say, the military matters to the USA.
Despite its military splendour and deep pockets, one group has particularly suffered within the US army. In 2012, the ground breaking documentary ‘The Invisible War’ revealed the atrocious state of women’s safety within the army. The emotional interviews portrayed how the victims were abused and consequently saw their dreams for a military career crushed. It is estimated that “20% of all active-duty female soldiers are sexually assaulted” in 2011. This means that “a woman serving in Iraq or Afghanistan is more likely to be raped by a fellow service member than to be killed in the line of fire.’’
Half of the victims are aged between 18 and 21 years old, and if they left the military they face great difficulties in getting treatment for their mental and physical suffering. The reason for this is that they are not eligible for compensation of the Veterans Administration (VA), since they have not served the required amount of time. Even if the victim would be older, the chance of receiving indemnification is slim due to evidence being destroyed or lacking. This makes the VA claim process incredibly onerous and exhausting, as the victims have to prove that their afflictions were caused when they were serving in the military.
The documentary deems the major cause of the problem to be the judicial system within the military. The root of the problem is that service members have to report the rape crime to their commanders, who is then responsible for the investigation. The commander however is not impartial since he or she is responsible for everyone under his or her command. If a report would be written it would consequently affect the respective commanders’ capability to be in charge. Moreover, a victim of rape will most likely face retaliation from other service members and jeopardise their career. Consequently, 86% of the victims of sexual abuse do not report the assault and only 8% all the sexual assault cases are prosecuted.
The Pentagon has already declared a “zero tolerance” approach towards rape back in 1991. The Invisible War documentary shows how the Pentagon aimed to deal the problem with an instruction video (similar to this one). In which female service members are asked not to walk around without a buddy as it would increase the risk of sexual assault. This approach indicates a serious lack of understanding of how to deal with the structural problems of rape within the military. Instead of changing the status quo in which female service members are not able to safely walk around military compounds, women are told to ensure their safety by relying on others. Moreover, the Pentagon’s Department of Defence Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) has no investigative or enforcement authority. Even though SAPRO saw its budget increase in 2014 to 1,565 million USD, which is 0.024% of the aforementioned total military budget, it will unlikely be of much help to the 95.000 service members that have been assaulted since 2006.
The movement ‘Invisible No More’ is committed to change the prosecution policies of sexual assault. However, it has faced setbacks in the Senate in 2014, as a bill was blocked which proposed to have military lawyers instead of commanders decide whether or not to prosecute a case of sexual assault. The main opposing force was the Pentagon, which argued for the exact opposite as it wanted officers to have even more responsibility over the service members they lead.
Despite the setbacks, a change of thinking might have begun to transpire. The US Department of Defence has announced April as the Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. In light of this month, the Defence Secretary, Ash Carter, stood still by this year’s theme: “Eliminate Sexual Assault: Know Your Part. Do Your Part.” Carter wrote a message to its workforce on the 3rd of April, in which he regards sexual assault as a direct threat as it undermines the values of honour and trust within the military. Moreover, any form of retaliation against those that report sexual assault is considered as the same form of threat. It would seem that the Department of Defence is taking the matter more seriously and although the war against rape has been made more visible, without the necessary structural changes, it is far from over.