Winning the Language War, Defeating 'Military Sexual Trauma'

The end of "Military Sexual Trauma" and "MST" can happen virtually overnight, provided that each of us commits to keeping those euphemisms out of our mouths and off our computer screens.
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To military families, the statistics were old news: More than 20 percent of female soldiers are sexually assaulted during service. A female soldier is far more likely to be raped by a fellow service member than killed in combat. More than 19,000 soldiers are sexually assaulted each year. The military prosecutes less than five percent of those cases.

But to most viewers of The Invisible War, director Kirby Dick's heartbreaking film about the military's rape epidemic, that news came as a bloodcurdling shock. Dick's documentary pushed beyond those numbers, thanks to a cast of brave soldiers willing to look into the camera and describe how they were raped, then pressured by their superiors to stay silent. By uniting their voices, the film began a national conversation and became a clarion call for military families and concerned citizens determined to end what the Pentagon is calling "Military Sexual Trauma," or MST.

With your help, today's column will be a second clarion call: a call to end "MST," the insidious, euphemistic acronym that has become another handy method to silence half a million brutalized soldiers.

We think, of course, in language. And so it matters whether we're talking about the death tax or the estate tax, global warming or the climate crisis, traditional marriage or marriage equality. For generations the Pentagon has been brilliant at crafting language that masks its soldiers' pain, hiding war wounds from public view. Soldiers who faced the horrors of World War I returned from the front lines with shell shock. By World War II, that same injury had morphed into "battle fatigue." By the Korean War, it was "operational exhaustion" and by Vietnam "posttraumatic stress disorder," a humanity-free strand of jargon that survives today as yet another lifeless, euphemistic acronym: PTSD.

You won't see Army officials discussing brain damage either, though they might answer questions about the 400,000 soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and are "experiencing TBI" or Traumatic Brain Injury.

These acronyms have real-world consequences, airbrushing soldiers' wounds and preventing the public from getting involved. Think about how you would react if you clicked on the morning news and heard that since 2006, more than 95,000 service members have been sexually assaulted. You would be outraged. You might cry out, "My God, this is awful. We need to do something about this immediately." Now imagine that you catch a clip of the same story, a look at the 95,000 soldiers who have "experienced MST." A more likely response: "What the heck is MST? Ah, you know what — I'll figure this out later. I have to get the kids to school."

By using language that masks these violent crimes, the Pentagon can prevent the public from realizing what's happening to our soldiers and short-circuit any outrage long before it becomes a public relations nightmare.

Which is precisely the purpose of "MST." There is, after all, no legitimate need for "Military Sexual Trauma." The euphemism covers a range of crimes we already have words for: rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. As director Dick showed in his documentary, the label Military Sexual Trauma does more than obfuscate the truth. It also pushes civilian police to leave rape cases in the military's hands. The result: Thousands of violent criminals who would be serving years in prison if they committed their crimes at the local bar end up going scot-free for raping their victims two miles down the road, inside the military base.

For perspective on this issue, I turned to Geoffrey Nunberg, acclaimed linguist and regular contributor to NPR's Fresh Air. Nunberg, the emeritus chair of the American Heritage Dictionary's usage panel, was stymied by the term "Military Sexual Trauma." The linguist scanned recent articles about MST before noting that the military was misusing the word "trauma." "A rape isn't a trauma; it causes trauma," he said. "They're using the effect to describe the crime. It's as if they're trying to move these attacks into the medical realm and out of the criminal realm. When you talk about trauma to refer to a rape, you're being dishonest," he said.

"Something is going on here," said Nunberg, before adding that this linguistic tangle was entirely new to him. Before we spoke, he had never heard the term "MST."

Google certainly knows "Military Sexual Trauma" and can point you to 1.5 million instances of the phrase. You'll find 3,680 references to the euphemism in the New York Times, along with broadcasts about MST on cable channels from Fox News to MSNBC. But what about everyday people? I followed up on my conversation with Nunberg, speaking with friends and colleagues, none of whom covered the military. All of them knew about PTSD; none had heard of MST.

Which is, no doubt, the silver lining here, the glimmer of hope that it is still early enough to terminate this acronym — with, of course, your help.

If you're a reporter, blogger or veterans' advocate, make sure that "Military Sexual Trauma" never passes through your keyboard and into print.

If you appear on radio or TV, make sure you never allow that pernicious euphemism to emerge from your lips.

If you're a member of Congress, don't parrot back the Pentagon's press releases about MST. Instead, confront military officials about the rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment of our soldiers.

And for the victims, our soldiers, never let anyone convince you that you have experienced MST. Own your experience, whether you have been raped, assaulted or sexually harassed. Refuse to see your own life through the lens of the military's distorted euphemisms.

So many Americans are coming together for our soldiers, pushing the Pentagon to reform its culture and fix its broken justice system. That effort will take years. But the end of "Military Sexual Trauma" and "MST" can happen virtually overnight, provided that each of us commits to keeping those euphemisms out of our mouths and off our computer screens.

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