“She Started It”: Why the Marine Internet Scandal is More Complicated Than it Seems

Nadia Asencio, USARNG

Nadia Asencio, USARNG

I refuse to be disgusted or outraged by the revelation this week that thousands of Marines and other military members actively violated the privacy of their “sisters in arms” by posting their naked pictures online without their knowledge or consent. I refuse to default to the usual complaint about the top brass doing absolutely nothing while their subordinates engage in predatory behavior. I refuse to rally a call to arms of feminists everywhere, in a futile attempt to hold these deviants and their superiors to account. I refuse to succumb because I am wary of these reactions; because, quite simply, they don’t apply here. And because pretending they do only serves to discount the real cases of sexual assault all too often encountered in the military.

Allow me to explain.

Most civilians understand that the military is a culture so distinct and severe that it requires rules and laws much stricter than anything that is encountered in the “real world.” For example, while adultery in “civvy (civilian)” life can mean a bad row and, eventually, perhaps, a nasty divorce, adultery in the military world can mean immediate demotion and loss of benefits. The same for flipping off your boss, or shirking your responsibilities at home or at work; your conduct is constantly micromanaged and scrutinized by everyone around you, and any and all transgressions are quickly reported, usually by someone who has always held a grudge against you for whatever arbitrary reason. If you are a low-ranking member, you are at everyone’s mercy; if you’ve fallen out of favor with your superiors, it’s just a matter of time until you get knocked down a few pegs. However, when it comes to sexual harassment and assault, the protocol is remarkably different. No one wants to “get involved” when they know that it’s happening; including, more often than not, the very people who are being assaulted. Why? Two reasons. One, because bringing down a superior on a sexual assault case can put you in a precariously vulnerable position; and two, because since everyone has at least a few skeletons in their own closet, the best way to gain favor and ensure the secrecy of others is to keep your own mouth shut.

Similar to law enforcement, the military depends on the strength of the camaraderie between its members – an unspoken “code”– in order to function. Both police and service members conduct high-risk jobs that few are willing or able to carry out. The greater the risk, the greater the expectation of loyalty; after all, your life can be literally in the hands of those you work within a matter of moments. If you can’t depend on each other’s loyalty, the whole thing falls apart.

So on some level, these unspoken standards make sense; you need teamwork to get the job done, and teamwork requires trust. On the other hand, however, the expectation of blind loyalty foments an environment in which corruption and predation are allowed to flourish. When “heroes” are beyond reproach, they often become tyrants, unaccountable and monstrous. And therein lies the problem; because in the military, monsters are often exactly what you need to accomplish the mission.

There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just be blunt: Trained killers are not going to be the nicest people. Trained killers are not going to respect boundaries and, unfortunately, they aren’t going to check their misogyny at the door. Men who are able to do that don’t usually sign up for military service, especially not in this day and age, when wars are conducted for questionable motives – sometimes against a barbarous enemy, but often in conjunction with barbarous “allies.” Trained killers and those who enjoy deploying on multiple missions – leaving behind the comforts of polite Western society in favor of the blood and chaos of war-torn, 4th World lands – aren’t people who reason like the rest of us; their worldview is drastically different than your average Joe. In their minds, our “rules” just don’t apply.

If we were to ask any of the men involved in last week’s online pornography scandal why they would engage in such lurid behavior, why they’d violate the trust of their fellow Marines on such a public forum, they’d most likely say that there was no “violation,” since the pictures weren’t “stolen,” so to speak. After all, if the women hadn’t taken the pictures and released them to begin with, then nobody would have been able to post them. All very rational remarks.

However, these men didn’t just post pictures: they posted the names and duty stations of the female service members as well, all but inviting other men to push the envelope further in a quest to get even more explicit pictures, potentially endangering the lives and wellbeing of these women. Did they think about that? Probably not. It was clear by the comments that these men felt entitled to post the pictures; many postings were revenge-based, while others were simply attempts to objectify the women, reducing them to props to help the men “blow off some steam.” And they could do that, because, at the end of the day, “boys will be boys,” and what ranking officer didn’t understand that? What ranking officer would jeopardize the careers of their most effective members over something as subjective as some chick getting her feelings hurt because her sexy pictures got posted up online? I mean…right…?

Some say it would be great if these men were dealt with harshly; if they were dishonorably discharged and if they lost all of the benefits that they sacrificed so much to earn. It would really send a message. Maybe; but I highly doubt that’s going to happen. First of all, there aren’t enough high-ranking female officers to make the call. But more reasonably, discharging 30,000 servicemen over pictures that these women willingly shared doesn’t sound like a tenable request…does it?

Steven Covey once wisely said, “Seek first to understand.” Simply judging military culture will not change it; there are too many factors involved that have shaped it and continue to bind its members together. To modify an outcome, one must understand the situation, first.

Shamefully, there are countless examples of the sexual abuse of women in our military; there are too many instances of assault and rape to pretend that it isn’t a real problem. As a woman and prior service member, I am appalled at the lecherous behavior of the men involved in this situation. But unlike cases of rape and assault, where a female is forced to engage with her attacker, this violation was completely preventable.

Knowing that all branches of the military are mostly populated by males, and understanding the nature of military culture in general, it amazes me that females – military or otherwise – would compromise their privacy by sharing intimate pictures of themselves with service members. Strike that – why any woman would compromise herself in that way, with any one.

We all need to take accountability for our actions. We can blame technology all we want for its violation into our privacy, but that’s a poor excuse for our own lapse in judgement. Of course these men are vile degenerates that deserve punishment. But the reality is that men like these are found in all walks of life, in all socio-economic brackets, both within and without the military. Welcome to the world.

And ladies, we wouldn’t have to worry about showing up on some creep’s porn site if we weren’t all so actively – and enthusiastically – willing to give ourselves away. That we are so willing, is perhaps, most outrageous of all.