This month we celebrate Veterans Day (every year on 11/11, as the Armistice ending World War One went into effect in the eleventh hour on that date, 1918). It is a time to honor and support all veterans, living and dead, who have served in the US military. More than 1.4 million men and women on active duty deserve and receive thanks for doing their duties well and faithfully. We can argue about the politics that put them in peril, but few would withhold gratitude for their sacrifice.
This may also be either an excellent or inopportune time to consider a tumor that threatens to sully the reputations of the vast majority of US military and vets. Your mileage may vary, but I was struck this week by the developing Senate push to address sexual misconduct in the ranks. It is important because the statistics are grim and deteriorating, and because there are currently two competing reform proposals sponsored in Congress by women of the same political Party.
First, the stats. In May, the Pentagon estimated that 6.1% of woman and 1.2% of men had been subjected to sexual assault while on active duty, meaning roughly equivalent raw numbers of men and women in the sordid total of 26,000 such cases. That’s up 40% and 33%, respectively from 2010. And while sexual assault is broadly defined, reported rapes constitute a substantial fraction: 3,374 last year alone. The Pentagon also estimated that as many as 7 in 10 sexual assaults go unreported.
Some might conclude that these stats simply reflect greater numbers of men and women of prime reproductive age and inclination working and living in close proximity. That dismissive approach, however, fails to comprehend that rape is not a crime of passion, but a life-threatening attack with a peculiarly devastating real and potential consequences. More men and women together in the ranks is a place to start the concern, not to end it – especially as the roles of women in combat are broadening. The problem urgently needs to be addressed; business as usual won’t do.
And as bleak as the numbers are, stories beat statistics. The assault problem was made –much – worse and more visible when the Air Force officer in charge of preventing it was himself arrested for drunkenly, brazenly groping a woman in a parking lot. Was he a fox in the proverbial henhouse? In fairness, his charges have been changed to functionally equivalent assault and battery, dropping the sexual component. However, the incident highlighted the unbecoming character of the issue and broadened its circulation among the public.
Rape, sexual assault and other crimes within the ranks are governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Most of what’s known about the UCMJ is not known to me, but I am at least aware of the crucial role of chain-of-command in that system. Commanding officers have much more control over the initiation, conduct and disposition of charges than their civilian counterparts – say, mayors or governors — could exercise.
And therein lies a primary difference between reform proposals offered by Democrat Senators McCaskill of Missouri, and Gillibrand of New York. The McCaskill bill would remove authority of commanders to overturn jury verdicts, and would mandate dishonorable discharges for those found guilty. She is widely supported by the brass, as well as the Senate Armed Services Committee. Gillibrand goes farther: she would remove commanders’ discretion over whether to pursue charges at all, and turn that decision over to military prosecutors. Victims’ Rights groups generally applaud that approach.
Now, as a general matter, self-policing is a poor means of addressing serious problems. It is too prone to rationalization and excuses born of self-interest, and that’s when it is played straight. It is also easily, privately manipulated. Lord knows we’ve borne witness to other institutions’ failure to adequately come to grips with internal problems of sexual misconduct – with equally tragic results. That said, I’m not a military man, although immediate family members served. I’m personally unfamiliar with the uniqueness of the military culture, in which battlefield survival can depend upon command, control and coordination.
So I’m particularly interested in readers’ thoughts on the competing proposals, especially the opinions of veterans. Are chain-of-command and cohesion so crucial to military effectiveness that Any change in command decision-making would compromise capabilities? Or is this limited exception sufficiently isolated that it will not significantly impact performance – except where it is supposed to do exactly that? Has this problem languished for so long, and become so deeply embedded that it requires a radical response, or can it be handled as another important goal to be achieved – yet another hill to be taken? Is there even an argument that such matters are so far afield from the military mission, and justice so far so elusive, that civilian courts ought to be entrusted with their handling?
We ask a lot of our armed services personnel. The military was ordered racially desegregated well before Brown v. Board of Education, gays in-service recently enjoy greater freedom from discrimination than that provided by civilian federal law, and women are being prepared to participate in mortal combat alongside their brethren-in-arms. There is no doubt that this organizational challenge can be met, as well. But to do so will require at least a new and different kind of commitment demonstrated up and down through the ranks, and a priority it has not commanded, until now. When that’s done, it will bring more, well-deserved honor to military personnel.
Veterans – do you agree it can be done? And what approach do you favor?