Wednesday’s hearing into sexual assaults in the military showcased a dozen tone-deaf generals and admirals harping about chain of command while incredulous senators – Republicans and Democrats alike – tried to pry from them an admission of failure and a real reform plan.
Instead, the brass battened down the hatches and prepared for battle. It’s a battle that, for the good of the military, they have to lose.
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., led the fight for change with her proposal to give prosecutors rather than commanders the authority to deal with sex crimes in the services. And she gave full voice to that cause during an unprecedented hearing where all seven members of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs testified.
A succession of generals and admirals argued that Gillibrand’s legislation would undermine the chain of command that they claim is essential to an effective military. The sexual assaults resulting from that coveted “tradition” are an affront to the armed forces and the nation they serve.
The Pentagon has estimated that 26,000 sexual assaults occurred in the military last year, with most of them going unreported. It has become plain that victims were aware their complaints would not only be ignored but that they themselves would likely be punished while their attackers would go unscathed. The report said that only 1,714 service members were charged with an offense and that numerous times commanders dropped cases against defendants.
What’s worse is that the problem is escalating. The number of sexual assaults had increased from an estimated 19,000 in the previous year. So then, why does the military insist on maintaining the status quo and a chain of command in which senior officers are allowed to overturn rape convictions? Sometimes these decisions are based on the defendant’s previous good character, a ridiculous point that Sen. Claire C. McCaskill, D-Mo., a former federal prosecutor, said has nothing to do with a case.
“The facts of a felony are the facts of a felony,” said McCaskill.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former Navy pilot and one of the most respected senators, voiced the challenges facing the Pentagon when he told the story of a friend asking whether McCain could give his “unqualified support” to her daughter joining the military. The wave of sexual assaults lent itself to a simple answer: “I could not.”
Putting prosecution into the hands of actual prosecutors is unpalatable to military stalwarts. Their approach has led to a staggering increase in sexual assaults in the military. That has to stop.
Some senators, including Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., can be counted on to argue for keeping the status quo. Graham is a former Air Force prosecutor who says removing the commander’s power to overturn verdicts would weaken the chain of command.
He’s wrong. The biggest threat to the chain of command is a military rife with unreported sexual assaults and victims left with two choices: shut up or get out.