By: Jason Lydon*/TRT Columnist–
I remember laying in my bed in high school turning the pages of a hardcover copy of “Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military” by Randy Shilts, thinking about the men and women he was writing about. I was quite amused that the Pentagon spent countless hours trying to discover who Dorothy was as they searched for the ringleader of the “friends of Dorothy.” Yet as I was learning this history, the United States military was actively dropping bombs on Iraq and Serbia while expanding military presence in Afghanistan, Sudan, East Timor and Cambodia. As some are celebrating Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s announcement ending the exclusion of women from direct ground combat, I find myself remembering my excitement about learning queer history. Neither the history I learned then, nor the celebration of women’s inclusion, recognize that the role of the soldiers is to perpetuate U.S. imperialism, colonial efforts, protection of US financial interests and the deaths of unnamed millions of people around the globe.
The announcement by the outgoing Defense Secretary opens up 237,000 combat positions to women. The U.S. Department of Defense is the largest employer in the world, with approximately 3.2 million employees, a third of which are active duty in the Armed Forces. According to the Department of Defense’s human resources site, 14 percent of active duty personnel are women. There are those who claim this opening of employment as a huge success in the move toward equality. A 2012 study by the American Association of University Women shows that women are still being paid only 82 percent what their male counterparts make. The military combat jobs can be seen by some as shooting holes in the glass ceiling for women, but the fight for equality ignores what individuals are getting equal access to.
Sexual assault still happening at a rate of 19,000 per year
Just days before this announcement, Airman 1st Class Krystal Tomlin posted an opinion piece on the Air Force Official Page. In her article she writes, “There were 3,192 reports of sexual assault in the military during fiscal 2011, according to an annual report by the Department of Defense. An estimated 86 percent of sexual assaults go unreported, bringing the total to approximately 19,000 sexual assaults per year.” She was writing in response to a question of whether a young woman would be safe during basic training. This past year has seen notable media attention to the realities of sexual violence women in the military experience, but is it possible to put an end to sexual violence within the military when sexualized harm has always been a tool of U.S. military action, from the colonization of this land to sexual torture in Abu Ghraib? Ending sexual violence takes much more than changing reporting policies or placing women on the front lines, there is a culture of sexual exploitation in the building blocks of the colonial structure that makes up the U.S. Department of Defense.
In the name of freedom
The continued politics of inclusion and equality functions as an effective distraction from the violence perpetrated in the name of freedom and democracy. The death tolls in Iraq from 2003-2007 reached just over 1 million according to the London based Opinion Research Business. Drones flying over Pakistan, Yemen, Palestine and Afghanistan this past year have killed thousands of people, 3,461 in Pakistan alone. It has gotten to the point that the United Nations announced that it will be making an inquiry into the use of drones and targeted assassinations. The inclusion of women in combat roles is not going to change this culture of destruction, it simply gives liberal validation to the ongoing policies of military expansion.
Rather than celebrate equal access to the military it seems a great responsibility falls upon us to challenge this culture of militarism. During Black History Month, many will find themselves pulling out quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., but one they will constantly forget comes from his speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” “I am convinced,” he wrote, “that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Our movements need also shift ourselves from a simple equality-orientation and consider the possibilities of collective liberation. The radical revolution of values did not end with King’s ideas in 1967, but are constantly transforming. Simple “equal rights” ignores the complex realities of our identities, our nation and our world. Taking the time to think beyond declared victories for equality makes it impossible to celebrate the inclusion of women in combat without seeing the faces of the countless victims of war; people of all genders, sexualities, abilities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, etc.
*Rev. Jason Lydon is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Boston. He is a long time anti-prison organizer and founder of Black & Pink, an LGBTQ-focused effort working toward the abolition of the prison industrial complex. Jason is also an avid lover of famous people and blockbuster action flicks. You can reach Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org.