Until last week I had never read the Northern Territory News, a Darwin-based tabloid. But when US Marine Captain John Campbell wrote in to express his disgust at the excess of female flesh he had seen on a recent night out in Darwin’s Mitchell St, that all changed.
And it wasn’t just me. Less than a day after Campbell’s letter appeared on the news website, some 15,000 readers logged on to read - and comment on - the ntnews.com.au story. The story, it seemed, resonated with people everywhere. And as news of the Captain’s diatribe spread, threatening to become something of an international incident, even the US consulate found itself forced to respond.
What had so appalled Campbell, to put it mildly, was how provocatively the women of Darwin dressed. This he went on to equate with a lack of standards, which would ultimately prevent these women from attracting “nice men”. “It’s about having standards, ladies” and that, for Campbell, begins “by dressing in a manner that leaves something to the imagination”.
He continues, “Ladies have been conned into thinking that just because you have it means you should flaunt it”. When women do so, Campbell believes they’re sending men “mixed messages”. And that, he seems to be suggesting, is a deplorable thing.
Given the nature of Campbell’s piece, the news storm that followed was probably unavertable. Reader invectives aside, an intriguing development which emerged in the story’s wake was the revelation that no US Marine by the name of John Campbell had served or was currently serving in Australia. Neither the US Consulate nor the Northern Territory News knew of his existence or whereabouts. Campbell, it seems, was either a fictional character, an alias or, as the US Consulate postulated, a retired Marine Captain.
Mystery or hoax, Campbell’s comments are nonetheless a whimsical, if disturbing, reminder of how women have traditionally been perceived and treated by the military. Though generalisations lend themselves to exceptions, I am thinking here of the masculine culture of violence and power, which is bred and encouraged by the military and which in times past have conceived of some women as little more than LBFMs (or Little Brown F**king Machines). In particular, I’m thinking of the insidious links between military presence, militarism and the emergence of a local sex industry to serve it. Whatever Campbell’s letter says about his own views on women, it carries with it the broader undertone that women are there to please, to attract men - perhaps especially military servicemen like himself enjoying their downtime in Darwin.
Even today gender inequality, which has improved immensely, continues to plague most western militaries. It may be less pronounced, more benign, but it’s still there. Just take another look at the Captain’s comments. Restricted only to women, they exempt men: how they dress and what they frequently get up to on a night out. As a Marine Captain, then, Campbell’s comments, fictive or not, only represent the latest incarnation of the military’s traditional subordination and objectification of women - both of those who serve and those who don’t.
Or not. Why I say this is because his insinuation that “nice men” aren’t attracted to women with no “standards” seems to suggest something of a departure from trends past.
In the past, for example, as Sandra Pollock Sturdevant and Brenda Stoltzfus recount in their classical text Let the Good Times Roll: Prostitution and the U.S. Military in Asia, military towns like Uijongbu in South Korea would have been lined with prostitutes and “mixed-blood” children. Downtime from active service meant R&R and that inevitably meant partaking in some form of I&I (intoxication and intercourse). Even though they exist, the stories of genuine cross-cultural bonds formed between foreign soldiers and the local women whose jobs it was to pleasure them number in the minority. For every one of these, there are thousands more that tell of the mechanical and institutional abuse of women, of women who had their bodies used by military personnel in the same way that one would use a machine.
And when plans change or wars end, as they inevitably do, what’s left behind is a crumbling local economy and a group of children fathered by men they’ll probably never know. In times past, local women - even those with the preserve of a Madame Butterfly - seldom attracted “nice men” for long. Nice men had girlfriends, fiancées and wives awaiting their return at home. Local women, instead, were only temporary comforts, exotic amusements, to be discarded and forgotten - sometimes with great sorrow and regret - once the war was over. While that was more than fine for some women, it brought disgrace and heartbreak to others.
The military studies that Sturdevant and Stoltzfus cite only confirm the extent of the military’s involvement in this state of affairs. Eighty per cent of unmarried men and 50 per cent of married men they identified were shown to have actively engaged in sexual intercourse with a prostitute at some time during their military service. Militarised sex, in many scenarios, is an almost institutionalised facet of military life, particularly when based abroad and during times of conflict.
Whole economies, as a consequence, have been built around and sustained by human trafficking and sex tourism, which have spurted up and around military bases. Even today the “blanket brigade” trails behind military occupiers from Okinawa in Japan to Portsmouth in England. So complex is this institution that it’s often difficult now to distinguish the agent from the object from the objectified. Power shifts from the women who court these men, whether for business or for pleasure, to the men who bid for their time. Still, wherever there’s a military base or a UN peacekeeping mission there seems to be a demand for women’s bodies in one form or another. Think, here, of the recent bestseller, Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story From Hell on Earth.
If I’m correct, though, what Campbell desires isn’t just another body from the “blanket brigade” that he can discard once he’s had his fun. This, if nothing else, explains his disappointment at how the Darwin women dressed. He’s after more than the “love ‘em and leave ‘em” mantra of military policies past. Instead, what he wants is something more permanent: a “nice woman” possibly as a companion for a “nice man” such as himself. The women he seeks probably don’t congregate in brothels or nightclubs - to say nothing of those women who do - even if that’s where he probably looked. He seeks something more. For all his foibles, and for all the foibles of the modern military which breeds this culture of chauvinism and conservatism, maybe Campbell’s intentions are honourable? Maybe he numbers among the good men (and women) serving in uniform today?
I’m reminded here of the Tony Ayres biopic, The Home Song Stories; especially the Australian sailor Bill, who weds the Chinese nightclub singer he meets on active service. He continues to love her, even if inadequately, despite her self-destructiveness. Even more surprisingly, he continues to love her two children even after her death. It’s a love story that’s far deeper, more understated and certainly more complex than first appears. It’s a love that defied convention and the conventional tales of war, sex and betrayal that’s too frequently associated with the military.
But who knows. I may be wrong. Campbell might, if he does in fact exist, be the man he seems to be: chauvinistic, arrogant, sexist; a man who rightly deserves the response he received from one Darwin nightclub dancer: “Put it where the sun doesn’t shine”.