If you looked at the headlines last weekend you would have heard about an “outburst” that prompted a “fury” on social media. Terrible things had been said, apparently, and everyone was outraged.
These were the comments in question;
“Oh, so fallen soldier Jacinda Baker liked boxing and baking – did they forget she also liked invading countries we are not at war with, killing innocent people and had no moral compass”
“She 100 per cent does not deserve our respect for her flawed choices. We are not at war. We are helping America invade another country for their oil. No more than that.”
“Go to war, expect to be killed. You can’t have it both ways – oh nice little career with the military and shock horror when you get blown up.”
The comments seem to reflect a frustration more than anything else; a frustration with New Zealand’s ongoing participation in the Afghan War – which is this country’s longest overseas conflict - over a year after Osama bin Laden was executed, and perhaps a frustration of the lack of a mass anti-war movement in New Zealand, and a jingoistic media who only pay attention to the war in Afghanistan when New Zealand soldiers are killed.
While comments like this probably appear on social media all the time, rarely will they come from someone as prominent as Barbara Sumner-Burstyn, an academy-award shortlisted documentary film maker, and the former social issues reporter for the New Zealand Herald. It is unlikely that comments like this would come from the keyboard of someone of similar status in the United States, where there is a sizable anti-war movement in which veterans play a significant role.
Burstyn’s comments are understandable, if misdirected. Jacinda Baker was a 26 year old army medic, and there is no evidence that she was involved in the killing of innocent people. Rank-and-file personnel are victims of imperialist policy. However, New Zealand “peace-keeping” involvement in Afghanistan legitimises an imperialist occupation that has continued for over a decade. This occupation is propping up the corrupt Hamid Karzai government, no better for most Afghan people than the Taliban – itself originally funded by the West. Blame ultimately lies with Western governments, including New Zealand’s Fifth Labour government
Burstyn seemed to realise that directing her attack on an individual soldier was not helpful to the anti-war movement, as she was forthcoming with an apology;
“I made a … thoughtless comment for which I unreservedly apologise to the family, friends and loved ones of Jacinda Baker.
“I do not in the slightest gloat at this young woman’s death – I bemoan the tragic loss of her valuable life. Certainly my choice of words at the time was not good.”
But this is not the end of the story. Burstyn wrote on her blog about the Facebook group that was set up in response to her comments;
“On it the men & soldiers of New Zealand threatened to rape me with chainsaws, to run me over, to burn down my house and murder me. I was told I would be stalked and hunted down. They extended the threats to my family.”
“This is the black underbelly of my country. Many of these men, and mostly they were men, posted these threats as members of NZ Armed Forces. They did so with no attempts to hide their identities.”
“Not one suggested that such violence and brutality might be an extreme response to careless words. No one in authority within the NZDF acted to control their staff in this extreme version of cyber-bullying.”
The media has quoted the above comments in part but has never made this the main story. Surely to many the way members of the military have opened threatened rape and extreme brutality is of more concern than a few “thoughtless” comments. These threats were not necessarily empty either; Burstyn’s home address and phone number were posted on the page and readers were encouraged to call her with abuse. She is currently in Canada but her family have fled their home until such time as they think it would be safe to return.
“The violence and brutality of the response has made me even more opposed to our presence in Afghanistan.” She writes
“And it begs the question if the men of the New Zealand Defence force behave like this at home, what are they doing when deployed overseas?”
It’s a question that should be explored. The same day that that this was front page news in New Zealand, the New York Daily Post began a two part series looking at the issue of rape and sexual assault in the US military. Last year alone there were 3,191 reports of sexual assault in the military, ranging from wrongful touching to rape. But the real figures for sexual assault are likely to be much higher. Even US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta says he believes that because it is such an underreported crime the real number could be closer to 19,000.
“The underreporting reflects how the majority of victims are too fearful to report the abuse, as many of the perpetrators are their superiors”
“Military officials, fiercely protective of their insular, macho world and strict chain of command, have ignored victims cries for help and often ostracize or force out women who report these crimes. As a result, advocates and lawmakers say, untold numbers of women especially younger recruits who are terrified to disobey superiors feel that sex is expected of them.”
There is currently no evidence of this sort of thing happening in the New Zealand Defence Force, but the public has just been presented with ample evidence that rape culture is alive and well within the military. Rape culture is a term used within feminism to describe a culture in which rape and other forms sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media condone, normalize, excuse, or encourage sexualized violence.
“If this is the culture that is endorsed by the NZDF then it is no wonder our country is blighted with domestic violence and child abuse.” Writes Burstyn,
“When men feel free to respond to a handful of words they don’t like with threats of extreme violence then you know we are a truly sick society.”
She ends her blog post by asking the question, “Since Jacinta is the focal point there, let’s ask ourselves how she would have felt about these horrendous threats of rape and torture, mutilation and murder posted in her name on Facebook.”