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The Men Who Kick Down Doors: How Domestic Violence Mirrors War

The term "domestic violence" undermines just how violent it is.

| Thu Mar. 21, 2013 3:59 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Picture this. A man, armored in tattoos, bursts into a living room not his own. He confronts an enemy. He barks orders. He throws that enemy into a chair. Then against a wall. He plants himself in the middle of the room, feet widespread, fists clenched, muscles straining, face contorted in a scream of rage. The tendons in his neck are taut with the intensity of his terrifying performance. He chases the enemy to the next room, stopping escape with a quick grab and thrust and body block that pins the enemy, bent back, against a counter. He shouts more orders: his enemy can go with him to the basement for a "private talk," or be beaten to a pulp right here. Then he wraps his fingers around the neck of his enemy and begins to choke her.

No, that invader isn't an American soldier leading a night raid on an Afghan village, nor is the enemy an anonymous Afghan householder. This combat warrior is just a guy in Ohio named Shane. He's doing what so many men find exhilarating: disciplining his girlfriend with a heavy dose of the violence we render harmless by calling it "domestic."

It's easy to figure out from a few basic facts that Shane is a skilled predator. Why else does a 31-year-old man lavish attention on a pretty 19-year-old with two children (ages four and two, the latter an equally pretty and potentially targeted little female)? And what more vulnerable girlfriend could he find than this one, named Maggie: a neglected young woman, still a teenager, who for two years had been raising her kids on her own while her husband fought a war in Afghanistan? That war had broken the family apart, leaving Maggie with no financial support and more alone than ever.

But the way Shane assaulted Maggie, he might just as well have been a night-raiding soldier terrorizing an Afghan civilian family in pursuit of some dangerous Talib, real or imagined. For all we know, Maggie's estranged husband/soldier might have acted in the same way in some Afghan living room and not only been paid but also honored for it. The basic behavior is quite alike: an overwhelming display of superior force. The tactics: shock and awe. The goal: to control the behavior, the very life, of the designated target. The mind set: a sense of entitlement when it comes to determining the fate of a subhuman creature. The dark side: the fear and brutal rage of a scared loser who inflicts his miserable self on others.

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As for that designated enemy, just as American exceptionalism asserts the superiority of the United States over all other countries and cultures on Earth, and even over the laws that govern international relations, misogyny—which seems to inform so much in the United States these days, from military boot camp to the Oscars to full frontal political assaults on a woman's right to control her own body—assures even the most pathetic guys like Shane of their innate superiority over some "thing" usually addressed with multiple obscenities.

Since 9/11, the further militarization of our already militarized culture has reached new levels. Official America, as embodied in our political system and national security state, now seems to be thoroughly masculine, paranoid, quarrelsome, secretive, greedy, aggressive, and violent. Readers familiar with "domestic violence" will recognize those traits as equally descriptive of the average American wife beater: scared but angry and aggressive, and feeling absolutely entitled to control something, whether it's just a woman, or a small wretched country like Afghanistan.

Connecting the Dots

It was John Stuart Mill, writing in the nineteenth century, who connected the dots between "domestic" and international violence. But he didn't use our absurdly gender-neutral, pale gray term "domestic violence." He called it "wife torture" or "atrocity," and he recognized that torture and atrocity are much the same, no matter where they take place—whether today in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Wardak Province, Afghanistan, or a bedroom or basement in Ohio. Arguing in 1869 against the subjection of women, Mill wrote that the Englishman's habit of household tyranny and "wife torture" established the pattern and practice for his foreign policy. The tyrant at home becomes the tyrant at war. Home is the training ground for the big games played overseas.

Mill believed that, in early times, strong men had used force to enslave women and the majority of their fellow men. By the nineteenth century, however, the "law of the strongest" seemed to him to have been "abandoned"—in England at least—"as the regulating principle of the world's affairs." Slavery had been renounced. Only in the household did it continue to be practiced, though wives were no longer openly enslaved but merely "subjected" to their husbands. This subjection, Mill said, was the last vestige of the archaic "law of the strongest," and must inevitably fade away as reasonable men recognized its barbarity and injustice. Of his own time, he wrote that "nobody professes" the law of the strongest, and "as regards most of the relations between human beings, nobody is permitted to practice it."

Well, even a feminist may not be right about everything. Times often change for the worse, and rarely has the law of the strongest been more popular than it is in the United States today. Routinely now we hear congressmen declare that the US is the greatest nation in the world because it is the greatest military power in history, just as presidents now regularly insist that the US military is "the finest fighting force in the history of the world." Never mind that it rarely wins a war. Few here question that primitive standard—the law of the strongest—as the measure of this America's dwindling "civilization."

The War Against Women

Mill, however, was right about the larger point: that tyranny at home is the model for tyranny abroad. What he perhaps didn't see was the perfect reciprocity of the relationship that perpetuates the law of the strongest both in the home and far away.

When tyranny and violence are practiced on a grand scale in foreign lands, the practice also intensifies at home. As American militarism went into overdrive after 9/11, it validated violence against women here, where Republicans held up reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (first passed in 1994), and celebrities who publicly assaulted their girlfriends faced no consequences other than a deluge of sympathetic girl-fan tweets.

America's invasions abroad also validated violence within the US military itself. An estimated 19,000 women soldiers were sexually assaulted in 2011; and an unknown number have been murdered by fellow soldiers who were, in many cases, their husbands or boyfriends. A great deal of violence against women in the military, from rape to murder, has been documented, only to be casually covered up by the chain of command.

Violence against civilian women here at home, on the other hand, may not be reported or tallied at all, so the full extent of it escapes notice. Men prefer to maintain the historical fiction that violence in the home is a private matter, properly and legally concealed behind a "curtain." In this way is male impunity and tyranny maintained.

Women cling to a fiction of our own: that we are much more "equal" than we are. Instead of confronting male violence, we still prefer to lay the blame for it on individual women and girls who fall victim to it—as if they had volunteered. But then, how to explain the dissonant fact that at least one of every three female American soldiers is sexually assaulted by a male "superior"? Surely that's not what American women had in mind when they signed up for the Marines or for Air Force flight training. In fact, lots of teenage girls volunteer for the military precisely to escape violence and sexual abuse in their childhood homes or streets.

Don't get me wrong, military men are neither alone nor out of the ordinary in terrorizing women. The broader American war against women has intensified on many fronts here at home, right along with our wars abroad. Those foreign wars have killed uncounted thousands of civilians, many of them women and children, which could make the private battles of domestic warriors like Shane here in the US seem puny by comparison. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the firepower of the Shanes of our American world. The statistics tell us that a legal handgun has been the most popular means of dispatching a wife, but when it comes to girlfriends, guys really get off on beating them to death.

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