The outbreak of rape accusations at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado has suggested to Lee Hockstader and T.R. Reid of the Washington Post — who think that “the widening scandal may turn out to be a bigger setback for the military than the Navy’s Tailhook Association debacle in 1991” — that the “Academy Culture” is to blame for the apparent coverups by senior officers of accusations that are in some cases decades old.
“The basic unit of cadet life is the ‘squadron,’ a group of about 100 students who live, train and study together. Cadets routinely say that the squadron becomes, effectively, their family,” write Hockstader and Reid. “But the ethic of the squadron also involves an unspoken obligation to protect [each other] from disciplinary action. Cadets and academy officials agree that the student code of silence covers not only minor infractions such as wearing civilian clothes or underage drinking, but also sexual harassment and assault.”
Actually, that’s probably true of most all-male, or male-dominated, societies. Nobody wants to be a rat. But it is especially true where, as at the service academies, there is a long tradition of honor codes — not the official but the unofficial kinds. General Douglas MacArthur was almost expelled from West Point because he refused to identify his fellow cadets involved in a hazing incident in which he was the victim. His mother always told him, he said, that a man of honor should abide by the maxim: “Never lie, never tattle.” Hazing has never entirely gone away, and you’ve got to wonder if, in some isolated corners of modern cadet life, rape is not considered to be a form of it.
Of course no such idea could ever be officially approved, but the unofficial side of military life cannot be entirely disregarded either. And what the cadets are to their teachers, the services as a whole are to their civilian masters. Not only the coverups but the rapes themselves must have been made more easy by the code of omerta that has its origins in the same unit solidarity that makes wars possible in the first place. This is certainly deplorable, with respect to the rapes, but that kind of horizontal bonding is not necessarily just something to be got rid of. Maybe it was something like that that the old fogeys were thinking of when they opposed the admission of women to the academies over a quarter of a century ago.
“The academy remains an overwhelmingly male-dominated institution, 28 years after the first female cadets marched onto the starkly modern campus on a high plateau beneath the Rocky Mountains,” write Hockstader and Reid, hinting at dark, patriarchal conspiracies. The “starkly modern campus” (dating from the 1950s) perhaps suggests to them the unfulfilled promise of a unisex future of interchangeable male and female warriors, fighting side-by-side. Any such ideal is obviously impossible in view of the sad reality that in the U.S. Air Force women are still, despite progress in many other areas, not allowed to fly war-planes. Not being equals, they are easier to victimize.
Yet the very metaphor of “progress” in breaking down sexual distinctions must presuppose some such destination towards which the world is progressing. If so, it must presumably conflict at some point with that other great progression: towards the end of war itself. As long ago as 1917, President Woodrow Wilson announced that his country was going to “the war to end wars” and “to make the world safe for democracy.” When, in spite of the allied victory in the First World War, that didn’t happen, the hopes for a warless future were revived in the wake of the defeat of Nazism and the foundation of the United Nations. Few people nowadays would like to admit to the naïveté of 1945 about the United Nations, but the Iraq crisis has shown that even the hawks among us must keep paying the talking shop on the East River lip service — in spite of its impotence and gross corruption — as a kind of totem, a lucky charm suggesting that progress’s end is still, somehow, in view.
But then I suppose that, once we reach the warless, non-discriminatory Utopia of our dreams, male and female soldiers will be able to serve together without any relics of the old gender Apartheid because they won’t have any wars to fight.