The Atlantic: The Marine Photo Scandal and the Cost of Indifference

March 27, 2017

Early this month, news broke on a military website called the War Horse that nude photos of women service members had been posted on a closed Facebook group called Marines United. In the days that followed, the Marine Corps announced that the Naval Criminal Investigation Service was launching an investigation. The Marine Corps leadership addressed the issue in a video and in Capitol Hill testimony. Since then, stories have come out showing that other branches of the military also took part in the photo scandal, and victims have spoken out to tell their own stories.

After word of the scandal broke, I tried and failed to write about it; I was stymied by frustration, irritation, and resignation: Once again, the world was reeling with disgust over the dehumanization of American service members. And this time the wound was entirely self-inflicted.

One of the more grim parts of this story is the reaction I received from Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans when I asked them what they made of the scandal. “To be honest, I am more surprised that anyone is shocked,” one West Point graduate now serving in the Army who did tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan told me. Her view summed up those of women in uniform that I have spoken with over the past two weeks, in both the conventional Army and Marine Corps and special operations. Some are now deployed in the Middle East in the fight against the Islamic State, and others have recently returned from Afghanistan.

For two years, I reported on an all-women special operations team recruited in 2011 for Army Ranger and Navy SEAL missions, and wrote a book called Ashley’s War, which told the story of one of these teams on the battlefield in Afghanistan. During that time, the ban on servicewomen in ground combat remained very much in place. In the process of my reporting, I found I’d inadvertently landed on a cultural fault line I had not known existed. I’ve since seen, firsthand, the misconceptions, the satisfied ignorance, and the firmly rooted apathy directed towards servicewomen by many who otherwise champion either America’s troops or women’s advancement. Over those two years, I learned that women in uniform can find themselves caught between advocates whose support they would otherwise have, but for either their gender or their line of work. Those who support men in uniform sometimes don’t know how to feel about women serving on what was once an all-male battlefield, and those who support women’s rights sometimes don’t know how to feel about the work women do to defend America.

But if the Marine Corps scandal has done one thing, perhaps it has stirred people to the cost of indifference

Certainly the need to acknowledge the sacrifice and valor of servicewomen has been clear for a long while. During my reporting for my book, a retired Navy captain told me of a time in the 1980s when she was allowed to visit a carrier in the Indian Ocean only during daylight hours because servicewomen were not allowed to stay overnight. The men who held the job before and after her usually stayed two nights on the carrier to accomplish the tasks she had about 10 hours to complete before nightfall. When the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders visited the ship to offer a morale boost, on the other hand, they faced no such restrictions and were free to stay overnight.

At a book party for Ashley’s War in Palo Alto, for example, a woman working in the tech industry told me it was “very sad” these young women didn’t have any other options and wondered why any woman would join the military. I explained to her what I had learned: nearly all the women I met in the course of writing my bookhad either graduated from college ROTC programs or demanding, prestigious service academies like West Point. “These young women could have chosen to go to [the consulting firms] Bain or McKinsey, just like the young women you know,” I said. “But they were driven by something different—a desire to serve.” She looked befuddled.

When I gave a TED Talk on these topicsthe chief challenge was to “humanize” the women who had served in America’s longest war and seen the kind of combat experienced by less than five percent of the entire United States military. I needed to show civilians that these women looked just like them, that they could relate to and understand them. That this was needed at all shocked me at first. But the more I heard civilians voice their views of servicewomen, the more I realized I shouldn’t have been surprised in the first place.

But why did it take this scandal to shake the public out of its apathy? And who are the public allies of women in uniform? They’ve been missing in action for quite some time.

In an appearance on C-SPAN in the summer of 2015, I discussed the graduation of women from Army Ranger school. After the discussion, viewers called in to share their thoughts. By an overwhelming margin, the calls came from people who didn’t believe that Ranger School held women to the same standard as men, despite the Army leadership’s comments and displays to the contrary; people who opposed women in uniform on the battlefield as a “distraction”; and viewers who questioned whether women’s desire to wear a ponytail or makeup made them unfit for battle. The questions grew so derisive that a caller who said he was from Ethiopia finally interrupted the stream of criticism. “I am surprised to hear the chauvinistic and misogynist things being said,” the caller said, speaking of Ethiopian women he knew who served with valor in battle. “When I am hearing this in America, that people would question what women are capable of, it is shocking to me.” He was the lone caller that day who expressed support for women service members.

Senator Joni Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, echoed Neller’s concern, and put the blame on all Americans, along with the Marine Corps. “This is Service-wide. And so we need a Service-wide approach to addressing this issue. This is a cultural problem not just in our military, but society at large,” Ernst said. “Hearing that many individuals were not surprised about these reports disappoints me.”

In fact, military leaders who have seen what women have done on the battlefield since 9/11 have been among their most eloquent supporters. 

“In 2003, when I got to Baghdad, as the commander of 1st Armored Division, my first foray out of the forward operating base, I hopped into the up-armored Humvee, and I asked the driver … who he was, where he was from, and I slapped the turret gunner around the leg, and I said, ‘Who are you?’” said former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey at the 2013 press conference announcing the end of the ban barring women from ground combat.  “And she leaned down and said, ‘I’m Amanda.’ And I said, ‘Ah, okay.’ So, female turret-gunner protecting division commander. And it’s from that point on that I realized something had changed, and it was time to do something about it.”

But Dempsey and others faced a lonely fight. And for years, their voices have been overwhelmed by those who felt free, guided by few facts and even fewer inhibitions, to question women’s valor and fitness on the basis of their gender. Perhaps the one positive byproduct of the Marines United scandal is that it will force those who stand by all service members—regardless of gender—off the sidelines.