"It Didn't Go So"

"It didn't go so," she said under her breath. —Erna Brodber, Myal, p.84.

Expelling the boogeyman part 1 - 10 Oct 2014 21:08

Tags: blame violence

We must … be careful not to idealize community or to assume that turning away from the state will automatically replace punishment and separation with restoration and reconciliation [Bibliography item opa11 not found.].

Expelling Lily

I was the medical officer at an environmental justice training camp in the central Appalachians over a decade ago. Aware that camps full of young people are high-risk environments for sexual confusion and assault, I did 5-minute talks each morning and night about communication skills, recognizing discomfort, the role of alcohol, and coming to me or another advocate for help. Despite resistance from some campers, the organizers established an alcohol-free sleeping area and an alcohol-free fire circle.

After my first talk, one of the campers told me two campers told him "Lily" (a young woman camper) was in an "accountability process." They were passing word around the camp. I invited the concerned campers and Lily to tell me what happened, and the facts were not in dispute.

A year prior, Lily was "called out" by two women she sexually assaulted at drunken campouts. She didn't use threats or physical force, but both women had lasting feelings that something wasn't right. After the women realized their experiences were similar, they initiated the accountability process. Lily resisted seeing her harm at first, then agreed to seek sobriety, get counseling at her own expense, not hide or minimize what she did, and not go to any event attended by the women she hurt. This camp was her first political event since the beginning of the accountability process a year prior. She was sober, and no one at the camp had been harmed by her.

We made a mistake, then, because the three campers who knew about the accountability process wanted expulsion and I thought it was unfair. We decided to let the camp decide, but didn't give the camp all the information about what was happening.

That night at the evening fire, the situation was described matter-of-factly, but de-gendered. Here's what we told them: Someone in camp sexually assaulted two people while drunk over a year ago; abided by all conditions of the accountability process, and was in the camp and sober. Three people wo were not sexually assaulted by the person want the person to leave. What should we do?

The response quickly degenerated into men summoning the boogeyman. They imagined the unnamed Lily to be male,1 hiding behind bushes in the dark with a knife, waiting to ravish young, defenseless girls.

The men dominated the conversation, and concluded: We're here for the environment and don't want to be sidetracked by feminist bullcrap. Drop him off by the side of the road, make sure he's gone, and let him find his way home. They decided the boogeyman didn't need a beat-down if he left in the next ten minutes, but that they should post guards in the camp to beat him with baseball bats if he came back. They wanted someone to go with their boogeyman to make sure he was really gone.

At that point, Lily stood up and said, "Okay, I'll go home. The last year was really lonely and hard. I hoped to be able to get involved in this work again, but I guess it's not time yet." The group froze, and then a few of the most vocal men very quickly decided that she could stay. She was not, after all, the imaginary boogeyman, or even male.

She left anyway. It was 11pm. I made sure medical was covered while I was gone. I rode with her to a highway overpass and sat with her til she caught a ride in the morning. She felt herself a victim of injustice and was afraid she would never be allowed to return to environmental justice work no matter what she did. We talked about her responsibility to remember the hurt she caused because it was too easy for her to drink and cause harm when she felt like a victim.

The scope of the problem

Sexual assault has long been known to be common where youth with high ideals share mass-sleeping arrangements, where adrenaline and alcohol mix and new relationships are negotiated [Bibliography item casnd not found.].

  • At least 1 in 4 college women has survived rape or attempted rape. 300,000 college women report surviving rape every year.
  • At least 80% of all sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance.
  • 48.8% of college women who were victims of attacks that met the definition of rape did not consider what happened to them rape.
  • 74% of perpetrators and 55% of rape victims had been drinking alcohol prior to the assault.
  • In a survey of high school students, 56% of girls and 76% of boys believed forced sex was acceptable under some circumstances.
  • About 1 in 10 college men admit to acts meeting the legal definition of either rape or attempted rape.

Expelling Lily did not solve any of these problems; it only hid them. Nonetheless, time and again, we expel Lily. Why?

Denial, minimization, and blame

Let me start by taking expulsion as a good option. If we wanted to purge our 300-person environmental justice camp of everyone who had raped or attempted rape, we would have to hunt down and send home 30 people. We can turn to Lisak & Miller's paper "Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists" [Bibliography item lis02 not found.] for characteristics we can use to detect the 19 men in camp who were statistically likely to each commit an average of 5.8 unreported rapes:

  • They use alcohol deliberately to render victims more vulnerable.
  • They easily feel slighted by women, and carry grudges against them.
  • They view women as sexual objects to be conquered and coerced. They view sexual relations as "conquests," and all women as potential "targets" of conquests.
  • They also commit and valorize non-sexual interpersonal violence.
  • They are adept at identifying "likely" victims and testing their boundaries. They use sophisticated strategies to groom their victims for assault and to isolate them physically.

The five men who led the clamor for Lily's expulsion, then changed their minds upon discovering that she was female had previously forcefully argued that sober spaces at the camp were unnecessary. They were part of a hypermasculine subculture that drank heavily, bragged of sexual conquests, played white knight, and felt that discussions of sexual assault were a diversion from the real work of aggressive activism.

If the word "rape" is not used but rather the behaviors legally constituting rape or attempted rape are described, perpetrators will self-identify [Bibliography item whi06 not found.]. If expulsion were a solution, the inquisition could begin. I betcha I can predict five of the 30 campers who would be purged.

Along with ignoring, denying, and minimizing, blaming people who have been assaulted is a well-established way that assailants and abusers defend themselves, and that bystanders protect them [Bibliography item hes11 not found.]. Could shifting blame onto known assailants or abusers serve a similar function? How do groups decide who they defend and who they expel?

:casnd : New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault (n.d.), College Campuses and Sexual Assault; One in Four USA (n.d.), Sexual Assault Statistics.
Jacob Z Hess, Nicole E Allen, and Nathan R Todd (Jul 2011), Interpreting Community Accountability: Citizen Views of Responding to Domestic Violence (or Not). Qualitative Report 16(4):1096-1123.
David Lisak and Paul Miller (2002), Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending among Undetected Rapists. Violence and Victims, 17 (1), 73-84.
Julia C Opara (2011), Afterword: After the Juggernaut Crashes. Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict, & World Order 37(4):44-57.
JW White, KM Kadlec, and S Sechrist. (2006). Adolescent Sexual Aggression within Heterosexual Relationships. In HE Barbaree (Ed.) and Marshall, W. L. (Ed.). The Juvenile Sex Offender (2nd ed., pp. 128-147). New York: Guilford Press.

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Bombs and advisors in Iraq and Syria - 01 Oct 2014 18:56

Tags: war

There are powerful roles that practitioners, educators, and other workers in public health can play in preventing war itself, as well as mitigating the public health consequences of war.

— APHA position paper (2009): The Role of Public Health Practitioners, Academics, and Advocates in Relation to Armed Conflict and War [Bibliography item aph09 not found.]

The US news portrays Sunni militants flying the Islamic State flag as brutal, unstoppable, and threatening to civilians in the the US. Anti-ISIL airstrikes began again in northern Iraq almost two months ago, and the US has been arming and training anti-Sunni militias for an indeterminate amount of time. Most of ISIL's killing was done this year, and amounts to as many as 9,000 dead, including two Americans beheaded to protest US airstrikes. In this blog post, I hope to challenge the idea that more US military intervention in Iraq will serve the interests of any civilians anywhere.

Health impact

ISIL's body count is big and their brutality is terrifying, but it would be wrong to consider them the most violent actor in their region. It would take sixteen years like 2014 for them to rack up the Assad regime's death toll in Syria's 3-year war, and a century to match US kills exceeding a million after thirteen years of preventative war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Islamic world [Bibliography item apb14 not found.;Bibliography item wii14 not found.]. Saudi Arabia consistently funds and sends fighters to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIL, and almost every group targeted by the US global war on terror, but is regarded as an ally by the US [Bibliography item bre13 not found.].

This summer, Sunni leaders plead for a non-military negotiated solution to ISIL's brutal insurgency and the resurgence of Shia militias [Bibliography item mui14 not found.]. US- and Iran-backed Shia militias undermined the political process in recent years by massacring unarmed Sunni Iraqi protesters [Bibliography item zun14 not found.]. Sunni adherents were ethnically cleansed from Baghdad [Bibliography item izand not found.]. Hundreds of Sunni civilians were rounded up by Shia forces and continue to be held on vague charges [Bibliography item fah14 not found.;Bibliography item mui14 not found.]. The US ignored the call for negotiated political solutions, instead seeking to "degrade and destroy" ISIL via aerial bombing, and continuing to advise and arm anti-Sunni militias.

The World Health Organization recently found that "civilian war deaths constitute 85% to 90% of casualties caused by war, with about 10 civilians dying for every combatant killed in battle." War hurts children's health, leads to displacement and migration, and diminishes agricultural productivity. Child and maternal mortality, vaccination rates, birth outcomes, and water quality and sanitation are worse in conflict zones. War contributed to preventing eradication of polio, facilitated the spread of HIV/ AIDS, and decreases availability of health professionals. [Bibliography item wii14 not found.]. Airstrikes and increased militarism degrade and destroy everyone except militants.

Air strike trauma stories

In the 1960s, US Strategic Air Command began covert aerial bombing in Cambodia against Viet Cong and People's Army of Vietnam bases and sanctuaries. The US Seventh Air Force inherited the campaign in 1970. They expanded and refocused the bombing on the growing local insurgency, the Khmer Rouge. By 1973 the US Air Force had dropped 2,756,941 pounds of bombs,1 directly killing more than 750,000 Cambodians.

The US bombing campaign "significantly increas[ed] the recruiting capacity of the Khmer Rouge, whom over the course of the bombing campaign transformed from a small agrarian revolutionary group to a large anti-imperial army capable of taking over the country" [Bibliography item kie96 not found.]. The US lost the proxy war and withdrew from the increasingly dire civil war it had provoked. In the four years following 1975, the Khmer Rouge government systematically killed almost a quarter of the Cambodian population in the worst genocide since the holocaust.

Aerial bombardment nourished civilian support for Taliban and al-Qaeda anti-US insurgencies. Speaking in March 2010, the US Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff said that "civilian deaths caused by American troops and American bombs have outraged the local population and made the case for the insurgency" [Bibliography item sha10 not found.]. Before air strikes against ISIL began this summer, the US had launched more than 94,000 air strikes since 2001 — mostly on Afghanistan and Iraq, but also on Libya, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Former Khmer Rouge official, Chhit Do, described the propaganda power of US bombing:

Every time after there had been bombing, [we] would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched… The ordinary people… sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came… Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half-crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told… That was what made it so easy for the Khmer Rouge to win the people over… It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on cooperating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them… sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge [Bibliography item kie96 not found.].

Sunni civilian leadership in Iraq organized against and fought ISIL before the US bombing began. Recent US-sponsored shelling and airstrikes killed civilians and refugees, brought a rival al Qaeda-affiliated militia together with ISIL, and drove recruitment of more than 6,000 new fighters [Bibliography item chu14 not found.;Bibliography item haa14 not found.]. Bombing trauma stories are likely to make more civilians cynical of political solutions and willing to bear arms with extremists to settle grievances.

Military advisors

The US demobilized the Iraqi army that served under Saddam Hussein, and organized, advised, and equipped an inexperienced sectarian Shia army. Many of the experienced officer corps of the previous Iraqi army, prohibited from serving in the new regime, participated in the anti-US insurgency in Iraq and the anti-Assad insurgency in Syria, and now form the officer corps of ISIL.

ISIL conducts mobile offensives — mostly from the back of pick-up trucks — on flat ground. Their stock of weapons and ammunition originated almost entirely from US military aid. The US directly supplied arms to the anti-Assad forces of which ISIL is one faction. Much of the heavy weaponry was captured from the the well-equipped2 Shia Iraqi military that the US put in place of Saddam Hussein's formidable armed forces [Bibliography item car14 not found.]. The Iraqi army is formidible in Shia-controlled areas, but halfheartedly abandoned tanks and heavy weaponry when sent to fight in Sunni areas.

Even as US bombs fall, all sides of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are fought with US weapons and munitions. In 2011 the United States ranked first in worldwide conventional weapons sales, accounting for 78% of global weapons sales [Bibliography item wii14 not found.]. Through foreign military aid programs, the US provides the money to buy most of the weapons it sells.3 Before ISIL, the US provided training, funds, and arms to mujaheddin (who became the Taliban) against the Soviet Union, and Somali irregulars (who became al-Shabab) against Ethiopia. The US provided arms and advice to Saddam's Ba'athists even as they used poison gas against civilians in Iran, and — before the rise of Islamic fundamentalism — sponsored coups by dictators like the Shah in Iran [Bibliography item asp02 not found.;Bibliography item sid07 not found.]. In a world with a sole military superpower, it isn't surprising when that superpower arms and trains all the groups it eventually fights.

Militarism and trauma narratives

Militarism is the deliberate extension of military objectives and rationale into shaping the culture, politics, and economics of civilian life so that war and the preparation for war is normalized, and the development and maintenance of strong military institutions is prioritized … It glorifies warriors, gives strong allegiance to the military as the ultimate guarantor of freedom and safety, and reveres military morals and ethics as being above criticism … Studies show that militarism is … negatively related to respect for civil liberties, tolerance of dissent, democratic principles, sympathy and welfare toward the troubled and poor, and foreign aid for poorer nations [Bibliography item wii14 not found.].

Once produced and distributed, most modern weapons have a long service life. An AK-47 can fire 60-70,000 rounds before the barrel starts to erode and accuracy suffers. That's easily enough for 20—30 years of continuous duty in a hot war. There are AK rifles in use in Africa with the rifling in the barrels worn almost completely away leaving a near-smooth bore, and the rifles are still shooting. Almost half of US taxpayer dollars go into military spending, which directly or by proxy keeps the weapons coming off the assembly line and the bullets from running out [Bibliography item wii14 not found.].

As durable as weapons are, the other products of military advisor relationships are even more long-lasting. Militarism, once built up in a society, can last for decades, and trauma stories persist for generations and become woven into cultural and historic identity.

Societies emerging from brutal wars include tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of … victims and perpetrators, shackled by their own pain and fear and unable to participate fully in life or in postwar reconstruction … The great majority of people are guilty of acts of omission and comission, acquiescence and witnessing, silence and suppression … People are never sure of the mindset of those to whom they are talking [and] never sure what they need to conceal….

Yet, in this silence, stories are constructed and relayed … These stories provide meaning and explanatory frameworks in a postwar context in which people no longer trust in what they used to believe … These stories travel across generations. They sustain the trauma narrative by providing encapsulated messages as to why one group must always be percieved as cruel, dominating, racist, or evil and the other group must always stay on guard [Bibliography item sid07 not found.].

So what?

This is part one of a two-part blog post. The second part discusses promoting health in Iraq, Syria, and the rest of the Levant.

Associated Press in Baghdad (18 Jul 2014). Iraqi Civilian Death Toll Passes 5,500 in Wake of ISIS Offensive. The Guardian.
APHA position paper (2009). The Role of Public Health Practitioners, Academics, and Advocates in Relation to Armed Conflict and War.
Robert Asprey (2002). War In The Shadows: The Guerrilla in History. Morrow & Co.
Gary Brecher (19 Dec 2013). The War Nerd: Saudis, Syria, and "Blowback". Pando Daily.
Conflict Armaments Research (Sep 2014). Dispatch from the Field: Islamic State Weapons in Iraq and Syria: Analysis of Weapons and Ammunition Captured from Islamic State Forces in Iraq and Syria.
Martin Chulov (28 Sep 2014). ISIS Reconciles with al-Qaida Group as Syria Air Strikes Continue. The Guardian.
Kareem Fahim, Azam Ahmed, and Kirk Semple (11 Sep 2014). Sunnis in Iraq Often See Their Government as the Bigger Threat. New York Times A9 (New York edition).
Haaretz (19 Sep 2014). Islamic State Recruitment Soaring in Wake of US Bombing. Haaretz.
Michael Izady (n.d.). Ethnic Cleansing in Baghdad (map series). Colombia University School of International and Public Affairs Gulf/2000 Project.
Ben Kiernan (1996). The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge. Yale University Press.
Jim Muir (29 Aug 2014). Iraq Crisis: Sunni Rebels "Ready to Turn on Islamic State". BBC News.
Thom Shanker (4 Mar 2010). Joint Chiefs Chairman Readjusts Principles on Use of Force. New York Times A16 (New York edition).
Barry Levy & Victor Sidel (2007). War and Public Health, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press.
William H. Wiist et al. (Jun 2014). The Role of Public Health in the Prevention of War: Rationale and Competencies. American Journal of Public Health 104(6):e34-e47
Stephen Zunes (25 Jan 2014). The US Role in Iraq's Upsurge in Violence. National Catholic Reporter.

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