Since President Obama announced in May that those in the military who commit sexual assaults should be “prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged,” the situation has grown increasingly muddied and conflicted. While the civilian leadership has been moving toward reducing unprosecuted rape-in-service cases and pushing the president’s call-to-action, the military brass have been weighing the call for change to the realities of military culture — aiming, as a result, toward a goal far below the commander in chief’s set benchmark.
“I’d say this conversation, this response, is better framed in how far can we go to mitigate this issue because eradicating it is not even in the realm of possible,” a senior Pentagon official acknowledged to POLITICO.
In recognition of the military leadership’s resistance toward offering a finite and comprehensive solution to address the military sexual assault situation — which saw a nearly-50 percent increase in sexual assaults from the first three quarters of fiscal year 2012 to the same period in fiscal year 2013: 3,553 reported sexual assaults cases — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D – N.Y.) announced on ABC’s “This Week” her intentions to reintroduce her filibustered military sexual assault proposal in its original form.
Last week, Gillibrand was informed that her intentions to narrow the scope of her bill to just sexual assault would jeopardize the legality of the proposal — which deals with dozens of other crimes, including murder, manslaughter and theft. Gillibrand’s proposal would force military leaders to refer such cases to an independent prosecutor who will investigate and try these cases outside of the military chain of command — which could dissuade or intimidate victims from coming forward or testifying against superiors.
“We’re going to stick to the original plan because it’s a better bill,” Gillibrand said. While Gillibrand floated the idea of a sexual-assault-only bill to get passed the automatic filibuster, and while the proposal is still in play, supporters have rejected the idea of establishing a “rape court” at the ignorance of other major military crimes, stating that “pink courts would be a great disservice to women who wear the uniform.
“It’s been an interesting process because what we’ve learned is having the bright line of elevating all serious crimes out of the chain of command makes sure both victim’s rights are protected and defendant’s rights for civil liberties reasons, that you need fairness and justice,” Gillibrand continued.
Currently, only 46 senators publicly support Gillibrand’s proposal. Military hawks, such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D – Mich.) and Sen. John McCain (R – Ariz.) favor allowing the military the space to solve its own problems.
“[It] is the culture. It is the institution. It’s the people within that institution that have to fix the problem, and that’s the culture. The people are the culture. So I don’t know how you disconnect that from the accountability of command,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told the Senate Budget Committee in June.
This is not the first time the military and the commander in chief have butted heads. On issues such as racial integration of the military, women in combat and gays in the military, civilian leadership had to compel change onto the military — typically, legislatively. However, the call on the military — a conservative, highly masculine organization — to reform at the threat of having outsiders take over has rattled more than a few feathers.
“Uniformed military personnel don’t tolerate sexual assault as a rule, but they also know the vast majority of personnel don’t commit such acts,” said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They intuitively sense what the statistics show, that this may not be more of a problem in the military than elsewhere in society. By contrast, civilians are reacting to learning about a new problem they didn’t understand before. So their instinct is to try to do something about it.”
Fundamentally, assertions that commanders are unsuited to control and deal with their subordinates’ cases of sexual assault can ultimately undermine these commanders’ ability to lead and handle their units. “They are commanders, who will individually and collectively have their prosecutorial power taken away in a wide swath of cases if Sen. Gillibrand’s legislation wins the day. And they and their subordinate commanders have to continue to lead troops and maintain good order and discipline the day after such change,” said Rachel VanLandingham, a former lawyer for the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
But for the thousands of victims who were threatened to remain silent, ignored, or grossly treated by the military charged to protect them — many of their stories are shared here — the reality may be that the military structure — as it stands now — is unable to offer to those that it serves the assurances of personal protection. In that sense, change may not only be needed, but demanded.