Sexual tension in the military

Posted: May 05, 2004 12:00 AM

 They make you want to turn away, those awful pictures of naked men piled into human pyramids while smirking American soldiers give the thumbs-up sign or grin inanely into the camera. Then you look closer, not at the humiliating jumble of naked flesh but at the American soldiers, and you realize that some of them are women. What is already a shocking tale becomes even more obscene and unsettling.

 Clearly there has been a terrible breakdown in order and discipline at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere in Iraq, and perhaps Afghanistan and Guantanamo, Cuba. The officer in charge of the facility at the time the apparent abuses took place was Reserve Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who has now gone on national television to defend herself. Speaking on ABC's "Good Morning America," Gen. Karpinski says that she "did not know anything about it. And had I known anything about it I certainly would have reacted very quickly."

 But that's the point. She didn't know what was going on, and she should have.

 It is hard to know what led to this breakdown in discipline. But one factor that may have contributed -- but which I doubt investigators will want to even consider -- is whether the presence of women in the unit actually encouraged more misbehavior, especially of the sexual nature that the pictures reveal.

 Before you dismiss the suggestion as some sort of raving misogynistic fantasy, let me explain why this possibility should at least be explored.

 Although the military brass has been loath to admit it, the increased presence of women in the military serving in integrated units has made military discipline more challenging. While some advocates of women in the military have argued that women's presence would improve behavior, in fact, there is much evidence to suggest it has had the opposite effect. For years now, the military has ignored substantial evidence that the new sex-integrated military interferes with unit cohesion and results in less discipline.

 Putting young men and women at their sexual prime in close proximity to each other 24 hours a day increases sexual tension. Allegations of sexual harassment, even rape, have become commonplace. In February, the Pentagon reported that it had received 112 complaints of sexual assault or rape in the previous 18 months from women in military units in the Central Command unit of operations, which includes Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait.

 In addition, the pregnancy rate among female soldiers serving in Iraq, most of whom are unmarried, is rumored to be unusually high. The Pentagon has resisted releasing precise figures, even when pressed to do so. Last year, one female Marine actually gave birth on a warship deployed off Kuwait. But while we don't know what the overall pregnancy rate is among female soldiers serving in Iraq today, in Operation Desert Storm it reached 15 percent and was the single largest cause of evacuation from Bosnia during U.S. deployments there.

 Military service has become heavily sexualized, with opportunities for male and female soldiers, sailors and Marines to engage in sexual fraternization, which, though frowned upon -- and in certain circumstances, forbidden -- is almost impossible to prevent.

 So what does this have to do with those pictures of mistreated prisoners? Take a look at the faces of those soldiers again, especially the female soldiers. They look less like sadists than delinquents. They look like they're showing off at some wild party trying to impress everybody with how "cool" they are. What they are doing is despicable, but they seem totally oblivious.

  The men and women who engaged in this behavior abused and humiliated their captives, dishonored their country and deserve severe punishment. But if we want to prevent this type of conduct from ever occurring again, we not only need to punish those responsible but also look at all the possible factors that might give occasion to such abuses -- including the breakdown in discipline and unit cohesion that have gone hand in hand with gender integration in the military.