Watching and listening to the brass-bedecked members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sulk their way through a Senate hearing on sexual assault in the military Tuesday revealed the extent of the problem and why the military is incapable of resolving it. First of all, the chiefs don’t really think there is a problem, an attitude that is shared among the commanders beneath them. Secondly, when grudgingly acknowledging that there may be a problem to pacify their inquisitors, they insist the solution rests with the commanders who are a huge part of the problem.
An estimated 26,000 military members were sexually assaulted in 2012, according to a Pentagon report, an increase of 7,000 from 2011, when measures were supposedly taken to address the issue. Only 3,300 victims reported their attacks, fearing they would not be taken seriously, or worse, that their careers would be jeopardized.
Late last month, a lawyer for a female Navy midshipman who reported that she was sexually assaulted by three members of the Navy football team last year told reporters that his client was disciplined for drinking while the athletes were not charged and were allowed to keep playing. This is in keeping with other recent incidents in which commanding officers overruled court-martial verdicts against abusers and took sides against victims.
It seems as if the military perceives sexual assault as simply boys being boys. The hierarchy may not be crazy about having women in the ranks anyway. When Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and former POW, said at Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that he told a woman whose daughter wanted to join the military that he could not give her his unqualified support, it’s easy to imagine the assembled chiefs of staff collectively thinking, "So what?".
Sexual assault in the military is not new, but what is new is the focus put on it, and the credit for that goes to the seven female members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Not only have they demonstrated real and overdue empathy with the victims, they are not given to the bowing and scraping before military brass their male counterparts are prone to. With the brass now on the defensive, the guys have begun to find their voice.
Various reform proposals have come forward in Congress, but the best has been offered by Senator Gillibrand, who has collected 13 Democratic and four Republican co-sponsors. Under her bill, complaints of sexual assault would be made to investigators, not commanders, and senior military lawyers outside the chain of command would be charged with making the decisions commanders now make. It isn’t foolproof but it represents real progress. The chiefs predictably squawked, with the chairman, Army General Martin Dempsey, complaining that removing the commanders from the justice process would undermine their ability to preserve "good order and discipline" in their units.
The shameful number of sexual assaults, however, proves there is little in the way of "good and order and discipline" in the units now. This response recalls the Chicken Little hysteria over the ending of the "Don’t ask, don’t tell" policy regarding gays in the military. Gays now serve openly in the military without any threat to order and discipline, and the only way to reduce sexual assaults, punish the guilty and restore order and discipline is by getting coddling commanders out of the way.
Sexual assault is now so thoroughly a part of the military culture it is seen less as a problem than as a nuisance that threatens non-existent order and discipline. The military cannot fix what it can’t acknowledge as broken. That job is up to Washington, with tough laws rigidly enforced.