The crusty critic Paul Fussell observed that war is always ironic, because things always end up so far from the glory-trailing myths that help start them. Irony, though, pales beside the fear and anger that now swirl around Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the source of many of the troops sent to Afghanistan. It was there that four soldiers recently confused their wives for the enemy and killed them. Marilyn Griffin was stabbed seventy times and her trailer set on fire, Teresa Nieves and Andrea Floyd were shot in the head, and Jennifer Wright was strangled. All four couples had children, several now orphaned because two of the men shot themselves after killing their wives.
The murders garnered wide attention because three of the soldiers served in Special Operations units that have fought in Afghanistan, and because they clustered over a five-week period in June and July. The killings have raised a host of questions–about the effect of war on the people who wage it, the spillover on civilians from training military personnel to kill, the role of military institutional values and even the possible psychiatric side-effects of an antimalarial drug the Army gives its soldiers. On the epidemic of violence against women throughout the United States and on the role of masculinity and misogyny in both military and civilian domestic violence, however, there has been a deafening silence.
Military officials have focused on marital problems and family stress, and have fiercely contested the notion that domestic violence is a more severe problem in the military than in civilian populations, although the Pentagon has not invested much in finding out what the comparison would look like. One Army-funded study that was done, however, found that reports of “severe aggression” against spouses ran more than three times higher among Army families than among civilian ones in 1998.
The military nonetheless maintains that violence against spouses is no more prevalent in the armed forces, arguing that it uses different criteria than civilian authorities for identifying domestic violence, including severe verbal abuse. “People have been throwing some wild figures around,” says Lieut. Col. James Cassella, a spokesman for the Defense Department. “My understanding is that it’s kind of an apples and oranges comparison.” But the military’s method may actually underestimate the problem, since it long ignored violence against a legion of nonmarried partners, an especially important omission, considering that one recent study found that single men represent nearly 60 percent of soldiers using a gun or knife in attacks on women. And there is no way to corroborate independently the figures the military releases on domestic violence cases that are handled through military judicial processes, since they are shielded, as civilian police records are not, from public view. Moreover, the cited studies did take into account the most important demographic differences–the apples and oranges–in military and civilian populations.
Mary Beth Loucks-Sorrell, interim director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a statewide umbrella group based in Durham, is convinced that women partnered with soldiers face disproportionate risks of domestic abuse, a conclusion reached through years of fielding reports from abused women (and occasionally men). Just since January, she said, North Carolina’s 100 counties have seen at least forty men kill their partners, seven of them in Cumberland County, where Fort Bragg is located. Reports of abuse from military communities are not only more frequent, but the level of violence they describe is more extreme and, according to domestic violence groups, has become worse over the past several years. Soldiers also terrorize their partners in unique ways, reminding the women of the sniper and bare-handed killing skills they acquire in training.