Vanessa Guillén . . .
The story is developing like a grotesque crime novel. Except the characters are the same age as college kids. Vanessa Guillén was 20, as was her alleged killer. The killer’s accomplice is only 22. There is much we don’t know, but prior to the discovery of PFC Guillén’s remains and the suicide of her murderer Specialist Aaron Robinson, Guillén had become a cause célèbre for advocates who have for years been demanding accountability from the military with regard to its treatment of women.
Prior to PFC Guillén’s disappearance, she had reported to her family that she was being sexually harassed by “a Sergeant.” She told her mother that this same Sergeant (still unnamed) had gotten away with it before when other women had complained about him. SPC Robinson was not a Sergeant, but a Specialist (one step below a “buck sergeant,” the lowest non-commissioned officer rank in the Army).
Her disappearance, after having hired an outside attorney based on Guillén’s and her mother’s lack of confidence in the Army’s own “accountability” apparatus, was immediately associated with her complaints. Whether Robinson’s actions — beating Vanessa Guillén to death in the arms room with a hammer, stuffing her body into a trunk, dismembering her body, encasing the pieces in concrete and burying them — were related to the grievance against “the Sergeant” is still unclear. It is believed that Robinson had once slipped into the shower room with her as a voyeur.
Robinson killed Guillén on April 22, then killed himself as he was about to be arrested on June 30, sixty-nine days after the deed. His girlfriend, Cecily Anne Aguilar, is the estranged wife Keon Aguilar, a soldier from Jackson, Michigan. Cecily Aguilar is now in custody. She assisted Robinson in hacking the body to pieces with an axe and a machete. They’d unsuccessfully attempted to burn the remains along with the large plastic equipment tote Robinson used to transport the body. Failing that, they buried the dismembered parts in three holes. Several days later, they returned to dig up the remains and re-buried them after pouring concrete into the holes.
The story only promises to become more lurid as more is revealed, the stuff of salacious Lifetime TV movies.
For those with little to no experience of the American military, let me disabuse you of popular impressions. I spent more than two decades in the Army. The armed forces are not a bunch of robotically-programmed, lock-stepping, highly-disciplined warriors. Three years ago, Guillén and Robinson were fighting acne in the eleventh grade. This is the predominant demographic in the armed forces, where the majority will serve a single three-to-four-year hitch and hit the road.
Imagine people you know who are the same age. They are obsessed with imaginary futures, music, and sex. They are subject to the most fucked up norms regarding heterosexual relations, which is doubly fucked up in the military.
Let me tell you something about mixed male-female units in the Army. Behind the scenes, they are MTV soap operas. And the junior NCOs, like the still unnamed Sergeant, are only just promoted out of the ranks of the non-supervisory ranks from E-1 to E-4. One day prior to their promotions, they were just one of the drone bees, caught up already in the off-duty dramas.
Military units are like very small towns. There’s a steady stream in these units of gossip (the favorite past time of most soldiers, male and female), about who’s zoomin’ who; and there are intense attractions, revulsions, rivalries, and jealousies that boil like stew on the stove. These hormone-heavy, post-adolescent units are frequently — behind their public faces — emotional pressure cookers.
Now, let’s take a step back and look at the context — that is, the institutional culture within which these dramas unfold.
The Army is 14 percent women and 86 percent men. Historically, it has been a male supremacist institution; and all its traditional norms were developed inside that paradigm. This is unremarkable, which is a problem, because what goes unremarked goes unexamined.
First of all, even after the official gender integration of combat arms units (infantry, armor, artillery, special operations), women are fewer than one percent of combat arms soldiers, even though combat arms constitute the majority of personnel. The overwhelming majority of women are concentrated then in non-combat support specialties. Vanessa Guillén was a weapons repair specialist. So the relative number of women in the more thoroughly integrated support units is often well above the overall ratio of 14 percent.
Forty-four percent of enlisted soldiers are married; and speaking from experience and from anecdotal information from people I know on active duty now, adultery is very common. Not only are married soldiers stepping out with other soldiers’ spouses, they are often stepping out with other unmarried troops as well as civilians. While this is not uncommon among the same age cohort outside the military, extended deployments, long unpredictable hours, and very close personal contact exacerbate the problem in the armed forces.
Then there’s another variable. Power.
Men already exercise enormous power — as men — over women outside the military, especially in the realm of heterosexual relations. That power is amplified inside the military by the great majority of men in a culture of machismo and misogyny. That power is further amplified by the military’s incestuous self-policing mechanisms and the military hierarchy’s allergy to bad publicity.
If a woman complains about sexual harassment or sexual assault in the Army — my alma mater — the majority of her male comrades are already predisposed to dismiss women’s grievances on this account, which creates a situation where even the few men who might believe otherwise are afraid to speak out for fear of being ostracized or even subject to retaliation. And retaliation against complainants is extremely common . . . because they can. Soldiers have to submit their grievance to the selfsame chain of command within which resides the offender — often a supervisor, sometimes the same supervisor who writes her enlisted evaluation reports.
The problem extends upward . . . or from on high, downward . . . whatever. Officers who fail to receive less than superlative evaluations — a highly subjective process giving supervisors nearly unlimited power over subordinates — will be drummed out. It’s a pyramid, the officer corps. There’s a Lieutenant in every platoon, a Captain in every company. But at each step up — through Major, Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel, and General (or Naval equivalents) — there are fewer and fewer places for the career officer, so it sets up a kind of reverse-gladiator competition between officers to see who can post the best metrics and kiss the most ass to survive the next cut. The needle is threaded by simultaneously conforming oneself to the wishes of the evaluator and avoiding anything “bad” that stands out . . . a contagion narrative. This is because at the very top of the hierarchy there are Generals, looking toward their post-military careers in the military-industrial complex, who have to go before Congress to ask for money. The aversion to public controversy begins at the top and drizzles down the evaluative hill like shit-lava to the last Second Looey. The first three impulses of any officer related to any problem that might go public has been to contain, contain, and contain. Now that’s complicated by public displays of zero-tolerance alongside selective containment.
Since the military came under public scrutiny some years ago about its little problem with sexual harassment and rape — the military is a concentrated rape demographic, aggressive men between 18 and 40 — the chain of command has responded in much the same way corporations are responding now to the mass movement against racist policing. It instituted obligatory and perfunctory classes on sexual harassment and no-means-no. Perhaps they can hire Robin Deangelo.
In practice, they also responded in a typically flailing fashion, by swinging from containment of accusations to a nearly automatic expulsion of anyone who is even accused of sexual harassment or assault without due process.
I know of one case in which a group of enlisted persons, male and female, who hated their platoon sergeant were coached by another NCO who was the accused’s rival for a position, in a conspiracy to have one member file a sexual harassment complaint as a way of getting rid of the platoon sergeant. They lied in their statements, changed statements, and claimed to witness events while they or the accused weren’t even in the same state together; but the blanket policy of expulsion, even after review by the higher chain of command and the Inspector General, prevailed, and the soldier was thrown out.
Again, neither solving the problem of military misogyny nor due process were the priorities. In the military, it’s all about the optics. In this case, the accused was on the outs with several key actors, so his expulsion made good optics. In other cases, when actual harassers and rapists are tight with other members of the chain of command, it goes in the opposite direction . . . back to containment.
We don’t know whether the murder of Vanessa Guillén was related to her sexual harassment complaint. And the investigation has effectively jumped outside the Army’s insular and self-reflective system. What I’d like to learn is, first, who was the unnamed Sergeant? What was his relation, if any, with SPC Robinson? What was the relation between Robinson and Guillén? The military will move to contain this to as few actors as possible, but there is obviously a much bigger picture here that involves the whole unit. If PFC Guillén and SPC Robinson were in the arms room — apparently to conduct an equipment inventory — they were in the same company, even the same section or squad. Access to arms room keys is tightly controlled, so they were in there under orders from someone, and they signed out the keys from someone unless Robinson was the company armorer. Members of their unit will have been ordered to silence on the matter for now, but that unit is buzzing right now with gossip and speculation. They will have known the background that led this man to kill his colleague with a hammer, and perhaps a good deal about his girlfriend who helped him chop a young woman’s body to pieces, burn her, then bury her, then dig her up and bury her again.
Have I mentioned the obvious, that the military is an institution whose very purpose is to commit deadly violence? Obviously, this doesn’t translate into every military member becoming a macabre killer; but it does amplify people’s predispositions, and the military does put its members under enormous and constant pressure. It’s great place to hide and even flourish if you’re batshit crazy and obsessed with death. I’ve known my share. On occasion, I inched closer to it than I’d like to admit. Living in a culture defined by domination and committed to violence will fuck with your head.
Remember Jessica Lynch? During the Iraq invasion in 2003, she was wounded in an ambush, whereupon she was treated by the Iraqis. The ambush opened up, her vehicle slammed into another one, and her injuries rendered her unconscious in seconds. The military and the media then cooked up an entirely fictional story about how she fought off her enemies to the last bullet, turning her into a convenient bit of propaganda for an unpopular war. They had even staged a fake rescue mission for her days after US troops had fired on an Iraqi ambulance trying to return her. By contrast, when LaVena Johnson, a soldier in Camp Anaconda (Balad, Iraq), was murdered by DOD contractors in 2005, the military declared her a suicide and closed the case. The military claimed falsely that Lynch, a white woman, was raped by Iraqis; and it covered up for US mercenaries when LaVena Johnson, a black soldier, was raped, murdered, and mutilated (with acid!) two years later. It’s always about the optics with the military. Always!
The military runs its own criminal justice system. It has its own laws, its own cops, its own courts, and its own Inspectors General. There is, in effect, no outside oversight apart from one’s Congressional Representatives . . . and most Congresspersons are loathe to go after them until it becomes a political liability to do otherwise, because the military is an object of worship in the US’s war-loving civic religion.
Abu Ghraib was run by military cops.
I’ve no clue how this story will continue to unfold. In the past few years, this country has become increasingly broken and frankly weird. But it seems a good time to share a bit of experience on the culture within which Vanessa Guillén was murdered.
[footnote . . . I wrote a book that was published in 2015 about gender and the military, called Borderline. In one chapter entitled “A Bodyguard of Lies,” I detail the accounts of Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman, and LaVena Johnson.)