Battle of the sexes
SEVEN women in fatigues are mechanically chanting: “What makes the green grass grow? Blood, blood, bright red blood.”
And so begins The Lonely Soldier Monologues, a piece of verbatim theatre that uses transcripts from lengthy interviews between journalist Helen Benedict and American soldiers raped while serving in the Iraq war.
The play has already been performed in front of US audiences and now Helen is hoping to bring it to London.
Her interest in the military grew out of a suspicion that the full story of the Iraq War was suppressed.
“I met some soldiers who were talking to a handful of students in 2004,” says Helen. “I noticed two young women at the back of the room. They said, ‘I served in Iraq for 11 months but no one listens to me because I’m female.’ So I said, ‘I’ll listen’.”
Their story revealed a military where women feared for their lives. Not from the “enemy” but from the men they served alongside.
As Helen spoke to more and more serving soldiers and veterans (40 in total, over three years) she realised the unprecedented scale of sexual assault and rape within the US forces.
It is reported that more than 20 per cent of female veterans have been sexually assaulted during service but the US Department of Defence admits that an estimated 80 per cent of attacks go unreported.
Helen’s writing has inspired a class action suit against the Pentagon alleging civil rights violations and also inspired the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War. The lawsuit was first dismissed in December 2011 when it was ruled that rape is an occupational hazard of military service. Four more lawsuits have since been filed.
While the military’s reputation for discipline and professionalism has been eroded by scandals like Abu Ghraib, there is a lingering belief in the camaraderie between soldiers, that a “band of brothers” will each take a bullet for the other.
The horrifying truth laid bare by The Lonely Soldier Monologues is of isolated women terrified of drinking in case they need to visit the latrines and risk attack, carrying knives at all times to protect themselves against their “battle buddy”, avoiding recreation areas for fear of catcalls, lewd comments and the near-constant screening of pornography.
“When I met Maria [army specialist Maria Sanchez] the first thing she said was that if a girl is in the military she’s one of three things: a ‘bitch’, ‘ho’ or ‘dyke’.”
In this culture of sexual harassment, women were encouraged to keep quiet about attacks. The chain-of-command procedure means that women have no choice but to report the assault to their unit commander, who will know the perpetrator personally.
Jennifer Spranger was deployed to Iraq to build and guard Camp Bucca, a prison camp for Iraqis. She told Helen: “You can’t fit in if you make waves about it. You rat somebody out, you’re screwed. You’re gonna be a loner until they eventually push you out.”
Conviction rates are ridiculously low. Of the 3,192 sexual assaults reported in 2011, 191 people were convicted.
Andrea Werner was charged with adultery after being raped by a married officer, while the man charged with raping Jessica Hinves was awarded “Airman of the Year” during the investigation.
Helen is convinced that this is an issue also plaguing the British Armed Forces. “I suspect there’s an ants’ nest to be found there,” she says. In November 2012, Labour MP Madeleine Moon questioned the culture of sexual harassment in the UK military at a parliamentary debate and reported back the conflicting statistics available on rape and sexual assault.
“In the years between 2010 and mid-2012, a parliamentary question informed me that there had been 53 rapes,” she said. “But Army Justice Board figures show 268.”
So why do women join up?
Helen found that the women she spoke to were driven by family tradition, patriotism, and a reaction to terrorist threats, to escape abusive homes or the desire to help people suffering abroad. She found their quashed idealism heartbreaking.
“I didn’t expect to like them,” she confessed. “But I was very moved by their courage to tell their story and speak out against rules. I wanted to give these young women a channel through which to be heard.”
The Lonely Soldier Monologues was brought to the Arts Theatre, Covent Garden, by Prav Menon-Johansson/ Liminal Space Productions for a rehearsed reading in early May and will hopefully return to London theatres as an important document and testament to these women’s bravery.
The invisible war that can’t be ignored.
Helen is currently writing a fictional sequel to her book Sand Queen in which Iraqi refugees meet a US soldier in America. She was awarded the Ida B Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism in 2013.