In harm’s way: women in the military

We wrote in our last post about rape as a weapon of war—a weapon that is used all too often by servicemen against women serving in their own military. Today we focus more on the effects of military service on women.

Some facts:


  • 104 U.S. servicewomen, 33 of them only 18 years old, have been killed in Iraq (as of December 2011). See their faces and learn about them here.
  • Thirty-six servicewomen have been killed in Afghanistan—along with hundreds if not thousands of Afghan women and children (as of August 24, 2012).

Mental illness


Limited access to benefits

Many servicemen and male veterans are also mistreated both while in the service and after discharge; we will consider some of those issues in a later post.

What does it reveal about a country when women are praised as patriots for volunteering for military service, sexually abused while in the service, and then become mentally ill and homeless following that service? What does it reveal about the current situation in our country when many working class women believe the only way they can get enough training and job experience to support themselves and a family is to put themselves in harm’s way?

Kathie Malley-Morrison, Professor of Psychology

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9 Responses to In harm’s way: women in the military

  1. Dahlia Wasfi says:

    With great respect, I find the dehumanization of Iraqis in the video to be offensive. These veterans reference “snipers” and “suicide bombers” who made them afraid when they themselves were members of history’s most violent and deadly armed forces. These women’s contributions to the slaughter of more than 1,000,000 innocent Iraqis–including 300,000+ children (human beings under 18 years old)–should give them pause.

    • Gold Dust Twin says:

      It almost seems as if Dahlia Wasfi , with whom I usually agree whole heartedly, is condemning the two women in the video as murderers, rather than understanding that they may have put themselves in harm’s way because they needed a job, the same motive many male soldiers have. Maybe it’s not a great motive, but the fault would seem to lie with the US government rather than with the individuals who are struggling to survive. Plus, the fact that our country has a violent history of aggression doesn’t help dispel the nightmares these women are having after witnessing that violence. They seem to be victims of the government’s aggression too, which was implied in the post on weapons of war: rape.

      • Ross Caputi says:

        I don’t think it’s acceptable to excuse what these women were a part of just because they needed a job. By the same reasoning, we don’t excuse mercenaries, drug dealers, or professional assassins. Furthermore, I think it’s a mistake to regard veterans, male or female, as victims or our government’s aggression on an equal par with Iraqis. Perhaps, veterans are victims of our government’s DECEPTION, but they are the ones who carried out the aggression. There is no way to wash their hands of responsibility for that. They may have been naive, misinformed, or poor; but at the end of the day, they were the ones who pulled the trigger.

        I also would like to respectfully disagree with some of the language in this post. I disagree with calling what these women did a “service” and describing it as “putting themselves in harms way”. Such a frame makes it difficult to understand how Iraqis could be harmed by a “service”. And “putting themselves in harms way” masks our militaries aggression by making veterans out to be the victims.

        Ultimately, I don’t believe that Iraqis and veterans are equal victims of the US government. Iraqis are victims of one large collective action carried out by veterans and the US government. The invasion and occupation of Iraq couldn’t have happened without veterans and the US government working together. Yes, the US government deceived and manipulated veterans into fighting a war. But any time we speak of the suffering of veterans without mentioning the suffering that they inflicted on Iraqis, I feel that we become complicit in the silencing of war crimes.

        • kathiemm says:

          Thanks for your comments, Ross. I definitely agree that we cannot excuse anyone who behaves in ways that are designed to harm and kill other people, although psychologists are generally concerned with the factors that contribute to inhumane behavior on the part of human beings. I also agree that it is very important to stay tuned in to how we frame particular messages and try to avoid framing things in ways that may present a distorted picture of what we want to say or should say–and clearly the Iraqi and Afghan people have suffered much greater losses from government-sponsored aggression by Americans than Americans have–though the economic and social costs of our wars have been devastating to millions of our own people. Finally, I also agree that nobody should be silent about war crimes, even when–or especially when–their own government is guilty of such crimes.

      • Dahlia Wasfi says:

        As I stated above, I am offended by the dehumanization of Iraqis in this piece, both the video and the written post. First, the video clip is from CNN, a news network whose sponsors have included weapons manufacturers like Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, as well as the oil giant, ConocoPhillips. CNN’s reports often reflect the bias of these war-profiteering interests. The journalist does not tell us that many of the horrors witnessed by Army veteran June Moss were committed by US forces: from a separate article, “The Army driver and mechanic once watched a Black Hawk helicopter mow down insurgents a few hundred yards away” (,9171,2001011,00.html). Who were these insurgents? These were human beings for whom a helicopter gunner was the judge, jury, and executioner. The piece depicts Iraqis as the “bad guys”–the “other”–and this soldier as their innocent victim.
        The second veteran, Shiloh Morrison, was a gunner in Iraq with the US Marine Corps; her job was to shoot and kill people. A mercenary is defined as one who serves or works merely for monetary gain; a hireling. Military mercenaries–regardless of gender–are not victims; the people they kill are victims. There are jobs in this country that do not require picking up a weapon and killing innocent people. It is a fact that 90% of US servicewomen are sexually harassed and one-third are raped. These crimes do not excuse the killing of innocent people or the invasion of Iraq, the “supreme crime against humanity” as defined at Nuremburg.
        These two veterans are morally disengaged; this is a topic that is often discussed on this blog, but no mention was made of it here. The blog post mentions the number of dead servicewomen in Iraq (the total of 104 being Coalition members, not only Americans), many of whom died from “illness” or “vehicle accident.” No mention is made of Iraqi dead. As I see it, we the people are responsible for the atrocities our government commits in our name. Veterans may not be any guiltier than the rest of us, but they certainly aren’t more innocent.

        • kathiemm says:

          As always, you do an excellent job of consciousness-raising and conscienciousness-stimulating, Dahlia. I have been very dismayed in stories I have read recently about sexual assault on American servicepeople by American servicemen, and about the general mistreatment of American veterans by the American government, but certainly nothing is more appalling than the killing, maiming, etc. of innocent civilians in other lands. None of us should ever lose track of that reality.

  2. Anna S says:

    I think this video is a great example of how important it is to have an integrative theory of family violence when analyzing cases of maltreatment. Malley-Morrison and Hines (Ch. 2, p. 15) emphasize the importance of addressing the relevant behavioral, affective, and cognitive factors within a multilevel ecological model. The video within this post shows June Moss, a mother who returned from combat with severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which ultimately leads her to be withdrawn from her children and eventually attempt suicide. Although her behavior was neglectful, by conducting an ecological analysis, the reasons behind her neglect can be understood and addressed. For example, at the exosystem level of analysis, which consists of relations among the settings in which the developing person is involved (MM&H, Ch. 2, p. 16), her behavior could be attributed to her social isolation and the dramatic environment shift she had to face when returning home from a war zone. At the macrosystem level of analysis, which consists of broad cultural factors (MM&H, Ch. 2, p. 16), her behavior could have been attributed to stressors related to income or race, depending on her specific life experiences. At the individual/ developmental level of analysis, her behavior could be attributed to her depression and posttraumatic stress, both of which may or may not have been related to her genetic makeup. Given the devastating effects of combat, such as the high rates of depression, suicide, homelessness, and little access to benefits (as mentioned in the post), I think it is crucial that we take the time to assess all of the contributing factors within a case of abuse before labeling someone as simply a “bad parent,” because under different circumstances, and with professional help, these parents can regain control of their lives and restore the health of their families.

  3. Rehana Rahman says:

    This post points to the gendered nature of the military and the subsequent inequalities that arise for servicewomen. As Professor Malley-Morrison notes, there exists an imbalanced trajectory that servicewomen are forced to follow: they serve their country, sometimes seeing it as the only means to support their family, are sexually abuse during their service, suffer from PTSD and a host of other issues due to maltreatment and being exposed to violence and subsequently find themselves homeless because there is limited access to benefits.
    How can we expect female and male veterans alike to be successfully integrated back into civilian life after being in the war where they are maltreated and do not have access to resources to cope with traumatic events. This type of treatment by the U.S. government of the same people who try to protect us is neglect.
    Similarly, if we look at Native American populations, we see a history of trauma and oppression. Malley-Morrison and Hines in Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective, identify that “this historical trauma , described as a ‘wound to the soul of Native American people that is felt in agonizing proportions to this day…is a multigenerational and cumulative , such that each subsequent generation suffers more than the previous one’ (2004, Ch. 4, 73). Furthermore, research indicates that child abuse and “…neglect among Native American Indians may be higher than those of the population as a whole” (Malley-Morrison & Hines, 2004, Ch. 5, 83). Consequently, such high levels of violence within Native populations as well as drinking as a coping mechanism can be attributed to centuries of degradation and dehumanization.
    African Americans too experienced centuries of oppression and discrimination. Malley-Morrison and Hines state that “contemporary Black families, even if unaware of the history underlying their child-rearing practices, may accept and follow these harsh, child-endangering practices originally designed to keep Black children from provoking the rage of powerful Whites (2004. Ch. 6, 107). They internalize these practices that were used to discriminate against them as acceptable means of coping. Little has been provided in the form of reparations to both African Americans as well as Native Americans.
    Thus, it is evident that the treatment of servicewomen is neglectful because such actions keep these women from receiving help that they need and create a culture of oppression while they are in the service as well as when they resume their civilian lives. As evidenced by the histories of oppression and subsequent neglect within Native American and African American communities, individuals internalize behaviors that were traditionally used to keep them in subordinate positions as suitable coping mechanisms. In the long term, the internalization of such negative behaviors creates tolerance toward aggression and a cycle of neglect.

  4. Sunanda Sharma says:

    When I read about civilians in other countries who we (America) cause direct harm to, I often do not put a face to the heinous violence that subsides. Instead, I superimpose the image of our government officials onto the images of war, in my mind. After reading the thread between Dr. Wasfi and others, I can’t say that I agree entirely with one side or the other. I believe that, yes, veterans and soldiers play a significant role in carrying out the violence that the US initiates, but their inability to cope with the pain they have caused speaks to their humanity. They suffer, maybe not as equally, with the crimes of war as civilians in other countries do. Maybe these service people are pressured to join the military because of certain environmental circumstances, but that still does not make them inherently bad people or murderers. One’s personal definition of “service” varies, as many on the thread have indicated, but if we go by our country’s definition (for the sake of argument) they are serving our nation.

    By getting caught up in the language of what “service” constitutes and what questioning whether one’s intentions for being in the military were valid enough, we’ve bypassed the importance and message of this post. Women soldiers and veterans are being sexually abused and maltreated – you cannot ignore this fact just because you do not agree with what they are doing. It is indefensible and appalling that sexual maltreatment is happening at all, regardless of the context. Normally, context is incredibly important to consider in any situation but in this case, adding the context in which it is occurring only digresses from the issue at hand. Let me just state for the record that sexual abuse or maltreatment to anyone, in any context, of any nationality or ethnicity is wrong. Could you imagine if we did this with cases of sexual maltreatment in children? What would happen if we tried to say that a child did something wrong and harped on what they did instead of addressing the fact that they had been sexually abused?

    As I write this, I consider the definitional issue that Hines and Malley-Morrison discuss in the first chapter of their text – instead of considering what could be explained when taken out of context, let’s just agree that any form of abuse or maltreatment is unacceptable and we should rehabilitate the parties involved (Hines and Malley-Morrison, 2nd edition).

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