Loretta Kemsley

(WOMENSENEWS)–After the horrifying photographs of abuse inflicted on Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison surfaced last week, President Bush apologized. “This is not the way we do things in America,” he added.

But for me–a dedicated news junkie, a survivor of domestic violence, and an anti-violence advocate–those were not acceptable last words on the issue. All too often, abuse is the way things are done here. And unless we takethis chance to look straight into the culturethat surrounds and perpetuates abuse, it will just continue.

Consider these apparently unrelated news accounts:

  • The London Guardian reports that the use of female guards to taunt male prisoners sexually is an established interrogation tactic belonging to a set of techniques known as R2I or “resistance to interrogation” that match what happened at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and are not an invention of maverick guards.
  • The Contra Costa Times reported May 5 that Capt. Leo V. Merck, a former National Guard commander, faces a court martial after photographing three nude female soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison. Specialist Myrna Hernandez was showering with two other female soldiers when she saw Merck on his hands and knees taking pictures with a digital camera. The pictures were among many inappropriate photos found on Merck’s government computer.
  • Military women have been consistently reporting rape and other forms of sexual assaults while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. In February, Pentagon officials admitted to receiving 106 reports of sexual assault of troops deployed in the Middle East over the previous 14 months. The figure has climbed to 112 since then.
  • On May 5, Sue Leeman, an Associated Press writer in London, reported that U.S. soldiers harnessed an Iraqi woman detainee in her 70s and forced her to crawl while one of them rode her like a donkey.
  • On May 8, ITV News in London quoted Suhaib al-Baz, a journalist for the al-Jazeera television network who was held as a prisoner in Abu Ghraib prison, as watching while a girl was beaten by U.S. military personnel. “They brought a 12-year-old girl into our cellblock late at night. Her brother was a prisoner in the other cells. She was naked and screaming and calling out to him as they beat her. Her brother was helpless and could only hear her cries. This affected all of us because she was just a child.”
  • The Los Angeles Times, quotes Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) as saying rape of the prisoners would be among the further shocks to come into view.

Ignoring a Pattern of Violence

Regrettably, most of the commentary on the abuses at Abu Ghraib has ignored this pattern of credible accusations of violence on the part of the U.S. military against women–both in the military and civilians.

In fact, the high number of recent rape allegations fit an old pattern. A 1998 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs, said 160 women who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War reported “physical sexual harassment,” including 13 who said they’d been assaulted.

Military women also suffer abuse at their home bases, almost as a matter of course.

A decade ago, Elizabeth Saum suffered torn cartilage in her chest, bruised ribs, bruises on her neck and post-traumatic stress disorder after she was given a mandatory order to play the part of a prisoner of war during a videotaped field exercise in a program at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, according to a March 16, 2003, article in The Denver Post.

Her “captors”–all male–beat her, unbuttoned her pants, climbed on top and pretended to rape her.

Abuse Persisted After Videotape

Even though the “resistance” part of the training was dropped after the humiliating videotape circulated throughout the academy, the abuse of women enrolled at the academy continued. Between 1993 and 2002, 142 reports of sexual assault were made to authorities at the Air Force Academy.

Eighteen cadets accused of assault graduated from the Air Force Academy and received commissions. The graduates continue to ascend the ranks of the military, including U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army, according to the September 2003 report of an independent commission appointed by Congress to investigate the allegations.

A change in leadership April 2003 didn’t stop the assaults or improve the chances of prosecution. The new Air Force Academy leaders have dealt with 21 sexual misconduct reports filed between April 2003 and January of this year. Of those, 12 took place between those dates. Only one has resulted in charges being filed.

“I’m very disappointed that it’s still going on, but I’m not the least bit surprised,” said Saum, now 30 and a teacher in Boston. “It’s the same mentality at work as when I was there.”

And that’s the point.

Tactics that are common in the U.S. military have been exported to Iraq. Now the results are in full public view. We should start changing what we see; not pretend it isn’t there.

Loretta Kemsley is president of Women Artists and Writers International Sylmar, Calif.

For more information:

Amnesty International USA–
Violence Against Women in Armed Conflict: A Fact Sheet:

the miles foundation, inc.–
Interpersonal Violence Associated with the Military:

Sexual Assaults in the Military: Letter from Congress to Rumsfield
(Adobe PDF format):