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.

On hearing of the four murders, many people in the general public and media asked whether the soldiers might have suffered from postcombat trauma or simply, as the military suggested, from the stress of deployment and its disruption of family life. Some commentators on the right went so far as to suggest that these killings are another kind of war casualty and give us one more reason for gratitude to US soldiers. On the left, the combat-stress explanation can draw on the notion of the soldier as a victim of class violence and reluctant imperial tool. In both these views, the soldier’s home-front violence is the traumatic outcome of “what he saw” in combat rather than the much more significant trauma of what he did.

Stan Goff, a Special Forces veteran of Vietnam and Haiti, and now a democracy activist in Raleigh, scoffs at the “TV docudrama version of war” underlying this assumption. “Go to Afghanistan,” he says, “where you are insulated from outside scrutiny, and all the taboos you learned as a child are suspended. You take life more and more with impunity, and discover that the universe doesn’t collapse when you drop the hammer on a human being, and for some, there is a real sense of power. For others, for all maybe, it’s PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] on the installment plan.” The effect of this sense of impunity was evident when a Special Forces soldier, who was once arrested for domestic violence, told one of us that Memorial Day ceremonies always left him pondering why he would get medals for killing others in battle but would be arrested if he killed his wife.

A distracting sideshow to the murder investigations has been a UPI report suggesting the soldiers might have suffered side-effects of Lariam, a drug the Army gives prophylactically to troops going to malarial areas. Prescribed for 22 million people since 1985, Lariam use is associated with vivid dreams, insomnia and dizziness and is known to be correlated with neuropsychiatric problems in a tiny percentage of cases, found in one large study to be 1 in 13,000. (In the wake of Pentagon stonewalling on the health effects of anthrax inoculation and depleted uranium weapons, Defense Department denial that Lariam is a problem might justifiably be taken with a grain of salt, but the epidemiological numbers suggest that skepticism is warranted about the drug’s relationship to domestic violence.) Nonetheless, the Pentagon has sent an epidemiological team to Fort Bragg to investigate this and other potential roots of the murders.

In the Pentagon’s approach to the problem and in virtually all media accounts, gender has been left hidden in plain sight. As in the 1990s schoolyard shootings, where a rhetoric of “kids killing kids” disguised the fact that boys were overwhelmingly the killers, here the soldiers are seen simply as an occupational group and the problem, at most, as one of an institutional culture where soldiers have difficulty “asking for help” from family service providers abundantly available at installations like Bragg.

Not only does the military remain by reputation the most “masculine” occupation available, but people in Fayetteville and in the armed forces generally consider Special Forces and Delta Force, where three of the four men worked, the Army’s toughest units. Special Operations units are some of the last in the military to exclude women, and they also specialize in unconventional warfare, which is combat that often follows neither the letter nor the spirit of the rules of war. As a sign in a Special Forces training area says: “Rule #1. There are no rules. Rule #2. Follow Rule #1.” Such a macho, above-the-law culture provides not a small part of the recipe for domestic violence. Combine this with a double standard of sexuality, one in which, as many soldiers and their wives told us, some couples expect infidelity to take place on Special Forces deployments–where the men operate with unusual autonomy and are often surrounded by desperately poor women–whereas the infidelity of wives, reactive or not, real or imagined, can be punished with violence.

If there was a common thread that tied the murdered women’s lives together, it was the one identified by Tanya Biank, a Fayetteville Observer reporter: All four of them had expressed a desire to leave their marriages, a situation that domestic violence workers have identified as the most dangerous time for women in abusive relationships. For that is when the control these men tend to insist on in their relationships appears about to dissolve. Christine Hansen is executive director of the Connecticut-based Miles Foundation, which has assisted more than 7,000 victims of military-related violence since 1996. Military personnel, she says, are controlled from above at work even more than most US workers, and many come home looking to reassert control, often with violence. The anxieties about control, and consequently the violence, flare up most often before and after military deployments, Hansen says, as soldiers lose and then try to reinstate control. As the war in Afghanistan began last October, for example, “We could literally tell what units were being deployed from where, based on the volume of calls we received from given bases. Then the same thing happened on the other end, when they came back.”

After the wave of murders at Fort Bragg, the Senate set aside money for a new Pentagon investigation of military domestic violence–the latest in a long line of commissions established over the course of the many gendered scandals of the past ten years, from Tailhook to Aberdeen. Such investigations have neither stemmed the problem nor prompted the military to recognize the fundamental role of violent masculinity in crimes like the Fort Bragg killings. This would entail seeing the murders as a piece of the larger, epidemic problem of violent abuse by men within the military, including rape of female (and some male) soldiers and civilians, lesbian- and gay-bashing, and brutal hazing rituals, as Dorothy Mackey, director of Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel, a national network of counseling groups based in Ohio, points out.

Of the 1,213 reported domestic violence incidents known to military police and judged to merit disciplinary action in 2000, the military could report only twenty-nine where the perpetrator was court-martialed or sent to a civilian court for prosecution. The military claims to have no data on the disciplinary outcome of the 12,068 cases reported to family services in that year. They also have no record of the outcome of 81 percent of the police cases. This poor record-keeping and apparent reluctance to prosecute offenders can be explained by the military’s institutional interests in burying the problem of domestic violence. One such interest is public relations. To recruit and retain a force of 1.4 million, including women and married men, remains a monumental task that would only be made harder by widespread knowledge of the extent of the violence. Second, there are financial motives. Many soldiers cost more than $100,000 each to recruit and train, money that goes down the drain if a soldier is discharged or imprisoned. Finally, there is the continuing, if waning, power of a belief, still widespread in the prevolunteer and mostly unmarried force, that “if the Army had wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you one.” Protecting women from domestic violence in this environment falls even farther down the list of missions to be accomplished than it does in the civilian sector.

The difficulties women have in leaving their abusers are well-known. Military wives have additional disincentives. The unemployment rate for military wives is extremely high–hovering around 20 percent for those living at Fort Bragg–and those who do find employment are often stuck in the minimum-wage retail jobs that are the main work available in the satellite economy around most large posts. If they report abuse, they risk not only retribution from their husbands, as do women in the civilian world, but loss of their total family income, healthcare and other benefits, and even their housing and neighbors if their husband is discharged. One Army program does provide $900 a month plus healthcare for the few abused women whose husbands are removed from the force for domestic violence. Fort Bragg has no domestic violence shelter, though for many years was donating a paltry $10 a day to a local shelter when military wives fled there.

Women married to abusive soldiers have been calling the Fayetteville newspaper and domestic violence shelters around the country in sharply higher numbers since the Fort Bragg killings were reported. According to advocates, many callers are terrified, fearing they will be next because of their partners’ ongoing violence and death threats. Women have spoken out about the frequent failure of commanders to take their calls for help seriously. And they have complained that they were often sent to military chaplains, some of whom advised them that suffering is a woman’s lot or that their husbands were just “working off some excess energy.” One counselor at Fort Bragg was quoted in the Washington Post describing how she tells women to prepare their partners returning from deployment for changes they have made in his absence, like cutting their hair short: “He might be thinking about running his hands through that long, luxuriant hair,” she said. “Don’t surprise your husband.” After the murders, rather than implementing new measures to protect the thousands of women already in its police and family advocacy files, in late August the military began to screen soldiers leaving Afghanistan for mental health problems. While this may not be a bad idea in general, it presumes that combat stress alone is what leads to domestic abuse, and creates the illusion that something is being done about domestic violence without addressing its fundamental causes.

The cultural celebration of soldiers, which has grown more fervent since the war on terror began, has hampered attempts to address the problem. In good times, critical views of military practice are not well received; in the new atmosphere of intimidation fostered by the Bush Administration since last September 11, they may be considered tantamount to treason. Christine Hansen, who has received death threats since her foundation appeared in news stories about the murders, notes that some civilian judges have been even more reluctant than before to convict soldiers of domestic violence, when doing so would trigger the Lautenberg Amendment, a 1996 law that prohibits convicted abusers from owning firearms. The idea that the soldier makes an unrecompensable sacrifice creates a halo effect, so that the murderers are painted as victims of the horrors of combat, while scant attention is paid to the women they killed or the system’s failure to prevent their deaths. As Stan Goff told us, soldiers in this climate can turn to their wives and say, “The culture’s worshiping me. Why aren’t you?”

In a widely disseminated Pentagon directive issued last November, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz declared that “domestic violence is an offense against the institutional values of the military.” But domestic violence, rape and male supremacism itself are not anomalies or sideshows to war; instead, they lie near the center of how it is prosecuted and narrated. The millions of women throughout the world currently threatened by soldiers will look to their advocates and each other for their ultimate safety, and may have a unique appreciation for the ironies of focusing on more abstract terrors when they face such immediate dangers so close to home.