In 2014, on a popular Facebook page called “Doctrine Man,” a serving Army National Guard officer wrote “let the butt hurt begin” in a thread discussing an article about one of us, Paula Broadwell, and, below it, posted a graphic image of a woman’s partially naked body impaled by a pitchfork.
Broadwell had certainly encountered vulgarity and sexism, both subtle and overt, in an ongoing military career that goes all the way back to West Point. But it was jarring to see a fellow officer stooping to this level of incivility in an online discussion group and so many others participating in the discussion seemingly treating it as no big deal.
As a young Marine lieutenant serving in Iraq, one of us, Kate Hendricks Thomas, carried spray paint to paint over graphic and violent pictures that depicted her in sexual positions on the walls of portable toilets from Fallujah to Taqaddam. It’s the kind of thing that a female Marine might laugh off publicly but that is privately frustrating, and a reminder that, Marine or not, women aren’t fully welcome.
So it came as no surprise to either of us when allegations surfaced that compromising photos of female service members were shared on the Facebook group “Marines United,” with some members reportedly espousing violence against women and objectifying female service members, including online sharing of nude photos of military women — many taken without knowledge or permission.
The episode shows that our military’s culture remains stubbornly sexist, and reminders are never far away.
In October, in a piece for the Marine Corps Times, retired Army Col. Ellen Haring challenged the process by which the Marine Corps established training standards for infantry officers. When her article ran, reader comments ranged from the patronizing to the disgusting.
In 2015, many of us cheered the women who competed for the prestigious Army Ranger “tab” denoting completion of the Rangers’ vaunted training school. But they had to overcome a “quiet backlash” within the military community of those who believed that standards would be lowered to make room for women to graduate from Ranger school.
Harassment and assault are serious for reasons beyond order and discipline; they both correlate with later health risks. According to a 2014 RAND Corp. study, an estimated 116,600 members — 22 percent of active-component women and 7 percent of active-component men — were sexually harassed in the past year.
The “Marines United” story recalls now-inactive groups, such as “Just the Tip, of the Spear” (there’s now an Instagram page of the same name) and “F’n Wook” (“Wook” is a derogatory term for a female Marine), Facebook pages exposed in 2014 and brought to the attention of Marine Corps leadership. On those pages, members asked each other to choose “smash or pass?” in the comments section beneath photos of female service members.
At the time, Marine Corps leadership responded that discrimination would not be tolerated, noting at the same time that threats, but not derogatory comments, were subject to criminal investigation.
In 2014, Task & Purpose “published an article detailing Marine social media misconduct. Following its publication, members of OMCC Office of Marine Corps Communications-Digital Engagement Team briefly mined Facebook and identified 12 additional Marines allegedly linked to racist, sexist, and/or otherwise inappropriate social media misconduct. Information about these incidents were provided to unit commanders for appropriate action.”
The Corps’ initial response to “Marines United” was just as tepid: “The Marine Corps is deeply concerned,” stated a spokesman, and the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Robert Neller, initially said, “I expect every Marine to demonstrate the highest integrity and loyalty to fellow Marines at all times, on duty, off duty and online.” Since then, the Marine Corps Times reports, “The Naval Criminal Investigative Service on Monday confirmed that the agency is working to determine whether felony charges are warranted.”
It’s a step in the right direction, but compare the USMC’s response with the unequivocal 2013 response to a similar scandal by Australia’s Army chief, Lt. Gen. David Morrison. “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept,” he said in no uncertain terms in a direct-to-camera speech posted on the Australian Army’s YouTube channel. He went on to challenge soldiers: “If you’re not up to it, find something else to do with your life,” before adding, “There is no place for you amongst this band of brothers and sisters.”
Morrison’s remarks left no room for doubt that men and women are equals in his military’s mission. Too often, though, in our own military, women are treated as adjuncts, at best, relative to their male peers. In the Marine Corps, it begins at segregated boot camp with the informal, but persistent identification of female Marines as “wooks” or “walking mattresses” — terms suggesting that women in the ranks exist to supply, and advance their careers by offering, sexual gratification for their male counterparts, normalizing day-to-day objectification and encouraging sexual assault. It ends, in many cases, with lower promotion and retention rates for women in the uniformed services. Sometimes it is the culture itself that encourages women to cut successful military careers short. In the wake of “Marines United,” Lance Cpl. Marisa Woytek — who had photos taken from her Instagram account without her consent and posted to Facebook — said, “Even if I could, I’m never re-enlisting.” “Being sexually harassed online ruined the Marine Corps for me,” she added. It’s a devastating realization familiar to many women who’ve served, emblematic of a problem our armed forces have been woefully ineffective in trying to solve.
It’s time for the Marine Corps, and the military as a whole, to finally take this issue seriously. Otherwise, the culture won’t change, military women will continue to be targeted, and the military will lose capable women who want to serve their country, but not if the price they have to pay is subjecting themselves to second-class status within the ranks.
“Marines United” is a symptom of a gender hierarchy in the military and, sadly, the broader society that it draws from. But unlike other habits that the military efficiently drills out of its members, there’s no effort to do the same when it comes to sexist behavior. How is it that boot camp can alter everything about an individual except, apparently, their retrograde view of women?
In Marines public affairs guidance drafted in response to “Marines United,” a note was made that the Corps should be prepared to answer “criticism from nonprofit groups that advocate on behalf of female service members.” Probably. But the goal shouldn’t be deflecting criticism, it should be meaningfully changing the way women in uniform are regarded by others who wear the same uniform. It’s never OK to promote violence against women or distribute their private information without consent. And it isn’t OK for the military to put the same old Band-Aid on a problem that’s been around since before we joined the service, was there while we served and may persist well after we’ve moved on. As one of the few government institutions that maintains high public trust, on this issue, the military has to aim higher.
Kate Hendricks Thomas is an assistant professor of public health at Charleston Southern University, a former Marine Corps officer and author of “Brave, Strong, and True: The Modern Warrior’s Battle for Balance.” Paula Broadwell is director of the Think Broader Foundation and an Army Reserve officer. They wrote this for The Washington Post.