Military commanders made it very clear, in a Senate hearing on sexual assault in the armed forces on Tuesday, that they do not want a bunch of senators taking away their power to discipline their own troops. Yes, there were 26,000 sexual assaults in the military in 2012. And, yes, some commanders had failed to prosecute rapes, or overturned sexual assault convictions. But, Army chief of staff Ray Odierno said, that's due to the "failure of some commanders and leaders to implement the system correctly."
That the hearing's witnesses were reluctant to have some civilians come in and start messing with things was clear in the testimony of Marine Col. Tracy King. "[Rape] reporting in the civilian community is even worse," King said. (Not true.) "Well, they don't have a chain of command out there." It's not so much that military victims think they'll face retribution for reporting crimes, King said. "This is such a personal crime," he said of rape. "It is so embarrassing." And that's true in the civilian world, too: "I read the newspapers too, and I see what's going on out there." There are periodic articles about the troubling disconnect between civilians and the military. King's invocation of the scary civilian world "out there" is a reminder that the disconnect goes both ways.
It's likely military commanders will lose some amount of power. After a string of embarrassing disclosures, several lawmakers have proposed bills to fix what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called a "profound betrayal" of military principles. The question now is how much power they'll lose.
In the military justice system, investigators give a commander commander a report about the facts of a case, and the commander then decides whether the facts merit a court martial, or a non-judicial punishment, called an Article 15, where a troop could lose rank or pay or some other less serious punishment. If the case does go to court martial, the commander can overturn a conviction or lessen a sentence. Two Senate bills that attempt to change parts of this. A bill co-sponsored by Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and Maine Sen. Susan Collins would take away a commander's power to reverse a conviction. (Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recommends this, though a commander would still be able to lessen a sentence.) A bill backed by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and California Sen. Barbara Boxer would go further, taking away a commander's power to decide whether to send a case to court martial.
The military witnesses testified to the Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that they needed to retain as much of this power as possible to be able to set a standard of behavior and enforce it. Senators should "allow a commander to command by allowing them to enforce the standards they set," Air Force Col. Jeannie Leavitt said. "Whether it's an enemy on the battlefield or sexual assault in the barracks, good order and discipline is just as important," Marine Maj. Gen. Vaughn Ary said. It's about leadership, they repeatedly said. But when Maine Sen. Angus King asked a question about culture — "Is the peer pressure against sexual assault or against reporting sexual assault?" — Col. King responded, "I would honestly tell you there is peer pressure against reporting right now but the tide is changing." Who's fault is that? Doesn't that mean someone hasn't been showing leadership through the chain of command? The witnesses said that was someone else's fault. Leavitt said, "We have got to create a climate that the peer pressure is you dont commit sexual assault." That would seem to betray a rather low opinion of the troops' internal moral code — that many need to be told not to rape people. Bureaucratic CYA is just as important in the military as it is on college campuses.
"It sounds like you all are very bullish on the status quo," McCaskill said. "The status quo is unacceptable." Gillibrand pointed out that in several Western countries, we have evidence of what happens when major cases are taken out of the chain of command. "In Israel, in the last five years, because they have adjudicated high-level cases you know what has increased by 80 percent?" Gillibrand said. "Reporting."
In fairness to the military witnesses, while they argued in favor of keeping old traditions, they were not the most old-fashioned people in the hearing. That award goes to Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who both implied that rapes happen because troops aren't able to get laid. "We live in a culture that's awash with sexual activity," Sessions said. "It creates some problems." He noted you could buy porno on or near military bases. Chambliss offered a more science-ish explanation: "The young folks coming in to each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22 or 23. Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur." None of the military witnesses suggested that the mere presence of women caused testosterone-fueled males to morph into violent criminals. That that backwards view is now marginalized to just a few old dudes in the Senate is progress.
- EARLIER: Gee Whiz, Saxby Chambliss Actually Said 'Hormones' Turn Troops into Rapists
- PLUS: A Visual Guide to the Gender Diversity at the Senate Hearing on Sexual Assault
Top photo: From left, Commander of the 202nd Military Police Group Col. Donna W. Martin; Commodore of Destroyer Squadron TWO Navy Capt. Stephen J. Coughlin; Commander of Combat Logistics Regiment 15 Marine Col. Tracy W. King; and Commander, 4th Fighter Wing Air Force Col. Jeannie M. Leavitt. (Photo by Susan Walsh/AP)