What Happens in Iraq, Stays in Iraq: Remembering Lavena Johnson

This is a post in progress. Trigger warning for rape survivors, some descriptions are graphic.


I’ve spent most of the morning trying to write a post about the contrast in attention in Hollywood to stories about murdered male soldiers and raped and/or murdered female ones. My main argument is that white male soldiers exemplify a narrative about the nation and citizenship that makes their stories reaffirm “americanness” even as many of their stories also critique war in general and especially the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and I will continue to include Iraq until every soldier and government paid mercenary has left). Stories about female soldiers however challenge notions about gender and the nation by subverting the strong white male in uniform with a normative gender crossing female face (since the definition of masculinity being sold here is one that depends on pretty girlfriends and wives who stay at home to care for the kids and cook dinner). More than that, the number of female soldiers and “consultants” who have been raped or otherwise sexually harassed in the military refuses an easy reading of military culture and subsequently “americanness” as exclusively heroic and just. The female soldiers whose deaths and abuses have been covered up further illustrate the links between sexism, violence against women, the war machine, and the state.

Gone is the tragic narrative of the “good soldier” who after doing all for “love of country” is murdered, like rising football star Tillman who gave up his career “stop terrorism”. In its wake is the story of women hazed along sexist and/or racialized sexist lines, abused and harassed for daring to do what their male counterparts are praised for doing, and some even murdered for daring to speak out or seek help. You cannot valorize a female soldier without confronting gender stereotypes that are embedded in the meaning of the nation. Nor can you talk about cover ups surrounding the abuse and/or murder of female soldiers without exposing the ways that violence against women is mapped onto military culture and war. This is not to say that all men or male soldiers are rapists, but rather that rape is a tool of war and that women’s bodies are the terrain by which men in war claim conquest and re-establish manhood. In the face of this truth, the narrative of the nation that depends on valorizing soldiers and seeing them as definitive images of the nation crumbles under the weight of oppression.

The farther away from the white male all-American soldier we get, the less likely the story will be told. In 2007, In the Valley of Elah was released to a moderate-sized audience. The movie told the story of Richard Davis, a third generation soldier who had fought in both Bosnia and Iraq who was murdered by fellow soldiers a few days after returning from war. Davis’ story garnered attention in the media because he was a legacy and covering up his death was much harder to do with so many other high ranking soldiers in his family. Yet, in order to tell his story, Hollywood execs decided he had to be white. They cast Susan Sarandon as his mother, a woman of color, and Jonathan Tucker to play Davis himself. No similar white washing of his assailants, which included men of color, was done. In order for the narrative of “good soldier” to hold, he needed to fit the myth of “americanness” that increasingly ignores the presence of Latinos as legitimate citizens.

Pat Tillman/wikipedia

Yet Davis’ story still got told, partially because of power within the military held by his family and partially the fact of his maleness. Re-written as white, he could still embody the hyper-masculine pseudo-sanctity of the State. Pat Tillman offers the same opportunity to Hollywood, all the more so because he was a football star turned patriot gunned down by friendly fire. The subsequent government cover up went all the way to the Bush White House. Hollywood is positively giddy at the thought of: a rising football star with a square jaw and a John Wayne sense of justice going off to inexplicable war only to be killed in a massive government conspiracy. It’s the kind of movie that helps win hearts and minds in the peace effort all the while nodding appreciatively at the hawks. In other words, both of these stories allow us to keep the image of N. America and heroism intact while underscoring the adage that “war is hell”.

No similar films have been made about Shoshana Johnson, Jamie Leigh Jones, or Lavena Johnson and there probably never will be. You may recall that Shoshana Johnson, a Panamanian immigrant to the U.S. and food service specialist in the military, was the first black female prisoner of war. She was caught and held for 22 days in Iraq along with 5 other soldiers from her unit. When they returned to the U.S., the media focused on Jessica Lynch, a young blonde, blue-eyed soldier who became emblematic of the war effort. In this role, Lynch re-affirmed gender norms by becoming the face of why we are fighting rather than the fighting itself. In the discourse of war, small boned, blue-eyed Lynch desperately tried to hold off the enemy only to be captured and held prisoner for days, possibly even raped during her ordeal, reinforcing the idea of the region as barbaric and a threat to valiant women and children everywhere.  Lynch never fired her weapon. Some reports even claim her lack of action during the conflict may have gotten another soldier killed. She also denies being raped, all though her biographer says her medical records are consistent with sexual assault. The media frenzy surrounding her, quickly died when the military cover up of what actually happened stripped her of her “innocence”. Shoshana Johnson was permanently disabled in the incident and had to fight the U.S. Army for benefits. She received no media attention and her fight to have her injuries recognized and paid for by the military, to receive her pay for her service, and to leave the army with an honorable discharge were all unreported. While the experience of both of these women is part of a larger racial discourse in the nation where big boned black immigrant Johnson could never stand in for the nation nor garner national sympathy in the quest for definitive americanness in war time, both women also had their stories manipulated or neglected because of their gender.

Shoshana Johnson & Jessica Lynch/unattributed

Think about the story as told by Hollywood, devoid of gender reference. Young, innocent soldiers, take a wrong turn into a fire fight and are then terrorized by the enemy as prisoners of war; when they return home, the military quickly concocts a story of heroism elevating one of the soldiers who may have been implicated in the death or capture of a fellow soldier while forcing the others to keep silent. Sounds fascinating doesn’t it? Now add in gender and race: a multi-racial unit of soldiers is captured during a firefight, including two women; they are held captive, and upon return to the U.S. the stories of the soldiers of color quickly fade into the background to highlight the plight of a single white female soldier until the truth surfaces and it turns out she was just an exploitable “pretty face” for the war machine. While I find that story interesting, does that sound like a Hollywood blockbuster to you or a Lifetime Movie? And what are some of the defining differences in those two genres?

Like Pat Tillman, Jamie Leigh Jones story went all the way to Congress. Jones was a KBR/Halliburton employee, a consulting firm in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan who has filed suit against 7 KBR mercenaries and employees who drugged and raped her while in country. Her gang rape was so brutal that at least one or more of her assailants ruptured her breast implants and tore the muscles underneath. The rape kit that confirmed 7 men had raped her both anally and vaginally throughout the night was stolen from the military infirmary. When it was later recovered, all pictures of Jones’ injuries had been destroyed. Jones herself was kept in locked up by KBR/Halliburton employees as punishment for seeking medical attention until one soldier snuck her a cellphone she used to call her dad in the States.

The investigation into Jones’ rape claims briefly exposed the legal issues surrounding the use of contracted “consultants”, mercenaries, in the U.S. war effort. They operate outside of military law and in international territory making the application of U.S. laws questionable.  At the same time, rules limiting the governing power of Iraq over soldiers and contracted mercenaries makes it almost impossible for Jones’ to hold them accountable in Iraqi courts either. In December of 2007, the DOJ decided they had were not going to press charges. From 2007 to 2009, KBR/Halliburton did everything in their considerable power to prevent Jones from filing suit or having an open court case if she was able to do so. In the meantime, Jones’ testimony before Congress forced them to change their rules about contracting with companies that require mandatory arbitration but as of January 2010 Halliburton/KBR was still fighting Jones’ right to have an open court trial against them.

Again, imagine this story devoid of gender in the hands of Hollywood. A young idealist consultant arrives in a war zone and discovers violence and corruption for which they are held prisoner and then spend the next 4 years fighting to expose in court that takes them all the way to The Hill. Again, this is the kind of story you could see at your local movie theater if starred someone like Jake Gyllenhaal or Matt Damon. (Matt Damon, by the way, appeared in one of the few made for Hollywood films about a female soldier’s mysterious death and the cover up surrounding it. Unlike the stories outlined here however, the soldiers were trying to cover up for her because she was incompetent and they “had to frag her” to save everyone else.) But when you add gender back in, centering the brutal rape of Jones, it once again makes move to Lifetime.

If we compare Lynch’s story to Jones’ the gendered aspects of “americanness” and war become all the more evident. Lynch was seen as a national hero because she supposedly bravely fought of the enemy who punished with rape and torture. Her victimization at the hands of the enemy was all the more valorized because she was song, small, blonde and blue-eyed. She exemplified the Birth of a Nation narrative that casts men of color as barbarians and rapists unable to govern and helped elevate it to international discourse justifying war. Jones’ was also blonde and blue-eyed and also fairly young. But these attributes were consistently used in a victim-blaming narrative that argued “she should have known better than to show up in a war zone pretty” and that her implants meant she wanted it … Why the difference? Because Lynch’s assault fit the war narrative of us=good vs they=bad. Jones’ story blurred those lines and implicated not only “us” but also the Bush administration who was intimately tied to Halliburton. Further, her story would have once again centered violence against women as a fact of war on all sides, undermining the image of America the Savior, and potentially privileged the Iraqi government over the U.S. one since the Iraqis made some indication that they were willing to prosecute the mercenaries for violence against women. This would hardly fit with the image of sexism that has underlined both pro-war and even some mainstream feminist interpretations of the Middle East and women.

Finally, Lavena Johnson’s death has garnered the least amount of attention in mainstream media of all of these women and yet hers is also a story of brave soldier and cover up.

As the news report shows, Johnson’s parents were told that she committed suicide in Iraq to cover up what medical reports indicate was a rape and murder. Not only did the military once again try to hide the fact that female soldiers are being raped at the hands of their own fellow soldiers, but their tale of suicide demeaned Johnson’s memory and denied the family benefits she had earned as a soldier.

Lavena Johnson was a high school honor’s student with a bright future ahead of her. She enlisted in order to pay for college. She was killed by fellow soldiers at 19 years old. Like Lynch, she was small (5 foot, 100 lbs) and pretty but as a black woman her rape and murder did not fit the national narrative of americanness and “family values” that the war was supposedly meant to uphold. Like Jones’ her rape may have been the result of hired mercenaries working for Halliburton/KBR as her body was found in one of their tents. And her death sheds new light on what may have happened to Jones had a soldier not gotten her a cellphone. According to the autopsy, Jones was beaten, shot at an angle that would be impossible for her to do on her own, and then, unsuccessfully, set on fire. While her breasts were not as severely damaged as Jones’, they showed signs of scratches and bite marks meant to abuse and torture. Someone had also poured lye into her vagina, something I can only interpret as an act of racialized violence since Johnson had pressed hair.

Sadly, Jones and Johnson have one other thing in common, the DOJ is refusing to investigate. Johnson is dead and her parents are working class African Americans with no ties to the military or to Halliburton/KBR. Unlike Jones, they do not have the kind of clout or momentum behind their cause in mainstream media to force the issue. Once again the disparities between how the nation views white women and women of color has left Johnson with only a handful of mainstream activists and mostly black activists on her side. And both women, by nature of being women have had to fight, Johnson through relatives, to even have their stories of rape validated precisely because their stories undermine the nation’s image of itself and its mission in Iraq and Afghanistan.

1 in 3 women who join the military will be raped or sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers or U.S. hired mercenaries. According to Time Magazine, The Pentagon estimates nearly 3,000 women were sexually assaulted in 2008, up 9% from the year before. Among women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number rose 25%. Women’s advocates in the military estimate the rate of rape and sexual assault in the military is nearly twice that of civilians living in the U.S. The same Pentagon report determined that 80-90% of sexual based crimes in the military go unreported and only 8% of those that are actually end in prosecution of rapists. Of the 94 N. American military women who died in Iraq, 36 died from injuries unrelated to combat. Many of these were ruled as suicides by the State Department, while 15 deaths remain shrouded in suspicion. Given that Lavena Johnson’s death was ruled a suicide it is hard to say how many of the other deaths attributed to suicide were in fact examples of violence against women or military sexism. At least 8 women died due to “non-combatant injuries” in the same base in Iraq and all 8 had shipped out from the same base in Texas. Moreover, these numbers do not include women who died for other reasons that may have actually been related to violence against women, like the 3 women who died of dehydration in Iraq in 2003 because they were afraid to drink liquids provided to them on the base after a certain hour. Given the incidents involving date rape drugs, their fears may not be as paranoid or as limited in scale as their case implies.  Interview data by Salon author Benedict shows that female soldiers are consistently warned not to go the bathrooms or showers by themselves and on some bases, not to go out at all at night. At least two women have come forward with claims of brutal rape at the hands of KBR/Halliburton. The contracts forcing them to remain silent and seek arbitration rather than legal options may be hiding any number of additional abuse cases. No data is available on Blackwater, though Iraqi citizens have claimed that some of their employees have raped Iraqi women and girls unchecked.

These stories are not headed to Hollywood. In some ways, this is a good thing because like the story of murdered soldier Davis, there is no way to know if Hollywood would do their stories justice or simply reinforce the same old narratives in a kinder, gentler, package. Nor do I think equal attention from Hollywood would make the fact that both women and men are dying under suspicious circumstances in Iraq all better. Instead, I am trying to argue that the war effort is based on an increasingly insular definition of N. America and americanness which reflects marginalizing traditions in our nation while deepening them. This in turn makes women’s lives less safe by allowing them to be targeted and even killed by fellow soldiers and mercenaries. The sexualized violence they experience, which often gets carried on racial lines that erases the plight of black and brown women as well as Iraqi women, is part of war culture that has historically come to visit on the mainland with returning soldiers. The failure to tell these women’s stories, particularly those of women of color, at a national level has helped allow this process to continue. Moreover, the desire to on the one hand, not vilify soldiers who are trying to do their best in an inexcusable war and on the other, to not validate the war effort by either focusing exclusively on the plight of N. American women (as I have done in this post) nor elevating the lives of soldiers above those of the 100,000s of civilians killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, has left us worrying about moral dilemmas and ideologies while women suffer unchecked.

Ultimately, this what motivated me to write this convoluted piece today from the perspective of Hollywood where for art thou. I am concerned about the lack of attention to women’s stories and experiences in war in general. And the constant refrain of how amazing Pat Tillman was and how great the movie about him was going to be finally pushed those concerns to the surface in a new way than the posts I have done about sexism, sexual assault, and sexualized racism against both N. American women and women and girls living in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Tillman’s story is important, I think he embodies everything we tell ourselves is the definition of American, everything makes this country great, and yet it is the narrow space he occupies as a “family values”, nationalistic, white heterosexual male football star that allows us to vilify women and people of color in this country and outside of it. It is the focus on that face as definitional space of the nation that makes it possible to laugh at the rape of poor black women in this country and to excuse away the rape and murder of them in another one as “suicide”. Until we better confront the meanings of nation, heroism, and war in this nation we cannot tell the stories of female soldiers because their stories undermine those images. And if we do not tell their stories, than violence against women as a weapon of war will continue precisely because we don’t talk about it and when we do, it is only to prove the barbarism of others.