Domestic Violence in the Military’s Mind
In Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, first published in 1651, he took the view that human beings are brutes and animals at the core. He argued that it was only through the enforcement of societal norms and laws that human instincts could be controlled. In 1762 Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s conceptualized his idea of the human condition he called the noble savage; he painted humankind as gentle creatures from birth. For Rousseau, it was the restrictions of society’s laws that compelled hostility and aggression. Whichever view on aggression a person holds, once enlisted into the ranks of the U.S. military he or she will quickly be indoctrinated into truly believing that aggression is a useful means to an end. This conditioned aggression begets violence (Aronson, 1999), and that kind of violence has the tenacity to show up in nearly every facet of the lives of those who freely employ it (Grossman, 2009). Domestic violence (DV) is a nationally growing problem that has not spared the ranks of the supposedly disciplined, and self-controlling military. In fact, some studies report that the rate of family violence in the Army is twice that of the civilian population (Hall, 2008).
This essay will survey the contributing factors and barriers to DV reporting in the unique military culture where it appears to thrive. It will conclude with some suggestions for solutions to solving the broken culture in the armed services so both victims and aggressors can move toward successful treatment options.
Before the 1970s, DV was thought to be isolated to lower socioeconomic families, alcoholics, people with psychological disorders, and was generally reserved for society’s vagrants (Gelles, 1980). As awareness and resources have increased, society has learned that DV can reach all economic and social levels. The United States military is no exemption. In fact, statistics show that the unique stressors, demographics, and mental conditioning of our service members are contributing to the military’s having a much higher rate of DV than civilian families (Hall, 2008; Grossman, 2009). Worse, research of the high-pressure lifestyle’s affects on military spouses implies that the military also has a lower reporting rate than their civilian counterparts as well. Clinical practitioners and mediators should actively seek to understand the contributing factors that lead to this unfortunate reality in their efforts to combat its frequency.
The rate of violence has been rising in recent years; not only is the military beating the public in DV rates, they are doing it more and more often every year (Hall, 2008). More frequent deployments with less manning, higher operational demands with less money, and “the mounting stress on military families during wartime may account for the increase [in DV] being seen” (p. 178). Ongoing demands of relocation suggests that the family is in a near constant state of flux in regard to their domestic roles and regularity. Being married to a military member means being in the military oneself, spouses are expected to be included in almost all off-duty military functions (Hall, 2008). A female spouse of a Naval officer is fully expected to be seen at award ceremonies, retirements, funerals, luncheons, dinners, spouses’ club meetings, weddings, baby showers, going away ceremonies, and welcome aboard ceremonies; these keep the family’s calendar full to capacity. Deployments mean that spouses are constantly exploring independence and new relationships while shouldered with trying to keep the marriage on hold in a safe and steady state (Hall, 2008). “If someone were asked to design an environment that would be as tough as possible on family systems, it would probably look a lot like the military” (p. x). Military wives are less likely to be employed and are more economically dependent upon their spouse than their civilian counterparts (MacDonald & Tucker, 2003). Fights are common about who is charge of finances, school decisions for the children, relocation worries, and which social commitments take priority. In a stationary and predictable civilian family these arguments can be ironed out in the first year of marriage; for the military family a constant shift in household seniority must take place with each homecoming and departure. These stressors can constantly hemorrhage the heart of any relationship. It is not this author’s intention to imply that these difficulties alone cause DV, but the tension from these constant role disparities cannot be discounted as contributing factors when arguments get out of control and turn to violent outbursts.
The military is its own worst enemy when it comes to the avoidance of DV in the ranks. Through its design to make the best possible soldier, the military’s use of classical (Pavlovian) conditioning is as much a part of its success on the battlefield as it is part of why the military is awash with DV on the home front (Grossman, 2009). When violence is taught to be the tool of choice for conflict resolution (no Army would teach its membership that diplomatic solutions were optimal) the soldier is prepositioned to accept violence as the easy solution to other non-combat related problems. Once the new recruit has accepted the proper attitude he or she will move quickly up the ranks. Once in charge, he or she may find himself as the judge and jury on a report where a subordinate service member is accused of DV. The system is designed to rally around the soldier and the “lack of common framework is a major weakness” (Rosenthal & McDonald, 2003, p. 1154) in the reporting and solution finding process. In fact, a leader is able to make the decision for punishment based on the service member’s reputation and service record (which have nothing to do with whether or not he beat his wife). “Punishment can [even] be suspended based on the outcome of the treatment plan” (p. 1156). So, for the commander, if the service member promises never to do it again, he or she can be virtually free from disciplinary action. Then what is to come of the justice and healing for his spouse and family?
This culture of putting service families under difficult relationship sustainment conditions and then being lackadaisical about family violence is disheartening for the victim and emboldening for the aggressor. These sub-textual psychological factors should be understood as contributing factors in the military’s DV rates.
By its own admission, though not completely intentional, the Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence (DTFDV) outlined the barriers to appropriate care within the armed forces. The primary barrier to spouses seeking help, and the military actually giving it, is the over-arching culture of the military, its leadership, legal system, and its families. Battering is described in the DTFDV report as an individual and clinical problem with no attention given to the social and military belief systems that contributes to it (Rosenthal & McDonald, 2003). In it the military fails to recognize the difference between normal marital disputes and “the patterns of power and control that characterize domestic violence” (p. 1154). Without understanding what they are dealing with, it is little wonder that the armed forces is not hitting the mark when trying to prevent DV among its membership.
Through that filter of misunderstanding another barrier is created. While the DTFDV recommends training among the leadership in the Department of Defense (DOD), it encourages training aimed at the wrong problem. “There is a troublesome emphasis within [the DTFDV report] on anger management as a remedy in some domestic violence cases” (Rosenthal & McDonald, 2003, p. 1154). It recommends that these “anger management classes should only be utilized in low level emotional maltreatment cases where there has been no physical violence” (DTFDV, 2002, p. 55). As Rosenthal and McDonald (2003) point out, classifying any flavor of DV case as “low level” is centrally problematic and is indicative of the confusion the DOD has about how serious DV can be. This lack of comprehension leads to another barrier in acknowledgement and the subsequent care for victims of DV. The processing of the DV claim rests heavily on the clinical assessment of the aggressors as being evaluated by the untrained leadership in his or her unit acting as an impromptu mental health professional. “Presently, any disclosure of domestic violence must be reported to the perpetrator’s commanding officer. This practice presents a major obstacle for victims who desperately want to reach out for help” (p. 1158). The unit commander is then charged with basing their response to the claim of DV on the service record and reputation of the accused, the perceived validity of the claim, the willingness of the victim to testify, and the kind of claim the DV should be considered based on “the severity of harm it caused” (DTFDV, 2002, p.77).
It is true that many unit and bases have letters of agreement with local authorities covering jurisdiction and how to prosecute DV on and off base, but ultimately the result of charges is up to the military. DV under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice has strict guidelines for punishment; the underlying position here is that statistically it does not even get to the point of prosecution as often as it should. The 1994 Department of Defense Abuse Victims Study specified that most, 75 to 84 % of alleged aggressors, are honorably discharged and even less than 7% are taken to a court-martial (Hansen, 2001). With this potential barrier to true justice, it is hard to imagine a young, vulnerable and battered spouse feeling empowered to fight a system set up to protect the integrity of her husband’s career and the reputation of the command. Remember, a commanding officer’s inability to handle the problems of his or her men, or personal family problems “could be generalized to their ability to handle difficulties within their unit and bring into question their leadership competence” (Drummet, Coleman, & Cable, 2003, p. 279).
Hall (2008) notes in fact, that unlike any civilian organizations, the military enjoys are near seamless information chain between employer, policeman, lawyer, doctor, and family advocacy moderator. This reality suggests other reasons for victims to shield themselves and their livelihood (that is found in the career of their spouse) from authorities.
If the service member and his or her family is lucky enough to get past these barriers, then treatment can begin. Unfortunately, if DV is not properly dealt with, the effects can lead to anxiety, depression, health issues, sleep disorders, suicide intentions or attempts, and even post traumatic stress disorder (Barnet & LaViolette, 1993; Rosenthal & McDonald, 2003).
Fortunately there are as many varieties for treatments as there are dynamic situations that demand it. Support groups, preemptive education, proactive follow-up by actual trauma clinicians, and increased family advocacy presence in the day-to-day dialogue of a command’s operations are all effective tools (Drummet, et al., 2003; Hall, 2008; Johnson, 2005). The DTFDV mentioned anger management class is not a final solution as it suggested. The DOD “must give stronger guidance and training to military officers so that they can pierce the illusion created by perpetrators and gain a more accurate sense of what exists in” the situation he or she is presented with (Rosenthal & McDonald, 2003, p, 1157). The DOD needs to recognize that greater attention should be paid to members who are already at risk through exposure to known stressors or are under treatment for physical and psychological injuries. Family confidentiality must be readdressed also. Certainly there are operational requirements for unit commanders to know about the health, physical, and mental state of the men and women he purportedly is to lead into battle. Yet with the confidentially rules being the way they are, victims cannot even approach a Family Advocacy Program representative for counseling without the expectation that his or her claim will find its way to the military police, the service member’s chain of command, and therefore be out of his or her control as soon as the report is filed. When relationships are publically supported by the chain of command with groups like the Family Advocacy Program stronger signals that DV and other inappropriate behaviors can help create a culture where all parties know they will not be tolerated (Hall, 2008).
These programs are not all successful, Drummet, Coleman, and Cable (2003) report that “fewer than half of the participants in family oriented programs sponsored by the Army rated them as useful or beneficial” (p. 280). This does not mean support groups to let spouses know they are not alone and educational outreach to teach all service members about trigger for destructive behaviors are not effective or good ideas. But it does indicate that the pervasive culture of apathy and dismissal of the power and control DV brings to a relationship is so deeply ingrained that even those who need help may not recognize the value in seeking it, and then may not recognize it when they get it (Johnson, 2005). The military has a long way to go to get this right.
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