13 July 2012

“Dear John,” a Changing Army, and our views of Gender Roles: Why Equality is Important

"Jesus Christ, the dog?!?"

Any service member who has deployed downrange or spent a significant amount of time away from home is familiar with the Dear John letter. Either they've watched one of their comrades receive one or have received one themselves. It’s that note that you get from your wife/fiancĂ©/girlfriend telling you that your relationship is over. The term “Dear John” for these letters only dates back to World War II, but this kind of correspondence certainly wasn't new back then.

These kinds of letters are an absolute sucker punch to a Soldier. Your relationship ending is always hard, but being deployed far away from home, regardless of how relatively safe you might be, only makes it worse. I remember having to take a Soldier’s ammunition away  in the aftermath of a Dear John. We were on an isolated little combat outpost in the middle of an Iraqi city, living in crowded, stinking hot tents. The patrols were constant, the heat oppressive . One of my soldiers, a gunner, found out that his wife was leaving him. It was like the final insult.  It was an absolutely brutal thing to watch. It was only made worse because of the poor conditions and the general lack of ways to escape to have some time to deal with it.

During World War II this was a common fear for people in uniform, and it’s one that hasn't gone away. The fear that some draft-dodger back in America was taking your place helped spawn one of the most famous cadences in the military, “Jody,”, about an unscrupulous civilian living back in America who moved in with your wife as soon as you ship out. Want to know how pervasive a fear this can be?  The Jody cadence has survived to this day.

Perhaps one of the more worrying elements of all this the potential decent into misogyny post-letter. I’ve always suspected the detestable “Boycott Western Women” website that sprang up a few years ago was started by a jilted service member in the wake of a deployment break-up. It’s easy to see how somebody could get caught in that trap. It wasn't you! It was because your significant other was a “slut.” Jody moved in because your SO was never that loyal in the first place!  After all, she's just a woman, who only cares about nylons and trips into town!

…except, of course, that Jody now more often than not won't be a man. The last decade has helped dissuade us of the infantile notion that somehow women are delicate flowers who needed nothing but protection. There has been no real front line to hide female service members behind; women who had been serving in the largely “safe” roles of being a truck driver, a mechanic, or a military police are fighting with their male counterparts. And they’ve accorded themselves just as well as men. Can people honestly say that women just aren’t cut out for combat after the heroic actions of women like Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester or Sergeant Monica Lin Brown? Women have earned their place in combat.

Part of that, of course, is that women now get to experience getting Dear John letters of their own. Women who go downrange have to wonder in the back of their heads if their significant other is being faithful just like their male counterparts. Their relationships are no more inherently stable, and they get to face the same kinds of pressures that exist for their peers.What bothers me the most is that by failing to recognize this we're only helping to perpetuate odious gender roles.  Think back to the Jody call.  It's called Jody because its focusing on Jody, the unscrupulous male who took over your life.  It's not named after the wife, and the blame is focused on Jody.  Because, after all, the woman is just a piece of property that Jody absconded with.  That's the mindset that opens the door for that misogyny to tear a Soldier apart, and in doing so makes him both a worse Soldier and a worse citizen.

Further, these entrenched gender roles can only make a relationship for a deployed female Soldier that much harder.  On top of all the hardships a couple have to go through wile deployed, they also get to look forward to the most extreme elements evangelical chunk of society judging them.  After all, this is a role-reversal; one away from the traditional role the man.  "Why aren't YOU off fighting? Aren't you a real man?"

And I haven’t even TOUCHED same-sex relationships, segment of our population that are volunteering to serve their country in combat who have the added pain of that society refusing to recognize their relationship. Same-sex couples get to face a deployment where they’re not even getting the extra financial assistance and access to support networks that are there specifically to help married couples. A gay Soldier doesn't just get to worry about the enemy, but also the fact that if their loved one gets sick or hurt that they won't have insurance coverage from the government like their straight counterparts. If a gay Soldier is wounded in battle, their loved ones will face many more hurdles to see them as they’re recovering in hospital. And if a gay Soldier is killed in battle, the support networks and benefits that are designed to take care of a Soldier’s spouse are denied to them.

All of this is reason why equality is so damned important; without it, we're that much worse as a country, as a society, and as a military. One of America’s strengths has always been that our military isn’t some Spartan entity; it reflects our society as a whole. And yet right now because our society is weaker because of how we treat women and the LGBT community we're weaker as a military too.  If we as a society can't change, we can't expect the military to do so either.

As an aside, that's why I’ll never understand how the skeptic and atheist communities can’t get behind trying to eradicate sexism, sexual harassment, and gender discrimination. We all understand how religious fundamentalism allows what should be people to fly planes into buildings or blow themselves up in a crowded cafĂ©, and yet some of us simply can’t understand how failing to enforce basic human decency can do just as much damage downrange. And if we can’t agree to simple ideas like “no means no” how can we expect to make progress fixing the damage fundamentalism causes us at the very roots of our society because a book from thousands of years ago demands it?

That's why the good people at Freethought Blogs should wear the #FTBullies slur with pride.  If you're earning the ire of these kinds of people, then you're on the right track!

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