The Military Obstacle Course: Sexual Assaults and Systemic Problems

no sexual assaultAt the beginning of last month (May 7, 2013) Nevada Senator Harry Reid expressed his disappointment with reported rise in the number of sexual assaults in the U.S. military [WaPo] By May 8th he was urging fellow Senators to use the military appropriations legislation as a vehicle for reforming the Armed Services’s systemic problems with sexual assaults. [Roll Call] By the first part of June, Senator Reid was more blunt:

“The present program within the military is not working,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Tuesday. “Women are being exploited and I’m sorry to report that even men are being exploited sexually, and that’s wrong.” [WaPo]

The Majority Leader’s frankness on the subject, combined with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) commenting that the situation is a “national disgrace,” [WaPo] should yield some long sought Congressional action.  However, the “Brass” aren’t having it. Eleven of the twelve leaders of the U.S. military who testified at the latest Senate hearing were men; all wanted One More Chance to change the system within the “Chain of Command.”

The top of the U.S. Army chain of command, General Dempsey told the panel: “I’ll speak for myself: I took my eye off the ball a bit in the commands I had,” Dempsey said. “When you tie it all together, I wouldn’t say that we’ve been inactive, but we’ve been less active than we probably need to be.” [WaPo]

You think?  Obviously someone’s eyes were not on the target, and it would appear a large number of individuals within the military were “less active” than they “probably need to be.”  Probably?  Instead of “probably,” let’s insert “unambiguously should have been.”

The first hurdle for the commanders to face is the command structure itself.  The military is different from other institutions in this country — and the concept of the chain of command in crucial to its fundamental operations.  However, when the chain becomes tangled in motivations involving advancement combined with the adjudication of criminal behavior there may be no way to resolve the issues inside the chained structures.

There’s that  moldy old adage — a chain is no stronger than its weakest link.  What happens when it is a superior who is perpetrating the assault?

“One former soldier told Parrish’s group (Protect Our Defenders) in a statement that she was sexually harassed and ultimately raped by a superior while deployed in Iraq.  The woman said she reported the assault to several officers in her chain of command, but was told that she’d be charged with adultery if she pursued the complaint. One officer even told her that he had mentioned the incident to her attacker, who said she had come onto him — and that she should be charged with harassing him.” [PBS]

The motivation for this mistreatment may run the gamut from sheer mean-spiritedness to concerns about promotion — in the military “if you aren’t moving up you’re moving out” — what unit commander wants to be the one to call his or her superior with the bad news that a rape has been reported in his or her command?

There are weak links in the upper portions of the chain as well.  Some recent examples are (1) Lt. General Susan J. Helms USAF whose promotion has been blocked by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) because General Helms granted clemency to a convicted sex offender without explanation.  [WaPo] (2)  Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force in Europe, after he tossed out the sexual-assault conviction of a fighter pilot.  [WaPo]   General Franklin just couldn’t believe that a pilot who was a “doting father and husband,” would commit a rape.  [WaPo]  It’s important to note that neither of these commanders are judges, or lawyers, and neither attended the trials of the convicted felons in question.   Both were advised by legal experts not to grant clemency or to toss out the cases.   The current Krusinski  case isn’t helping:

“The latest embarrassment struck Sunday, when Arlington County police arrested the chief of the Air Force’s sexual-assault prevention branch and charged him with sexual battery. Police said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski was drunk when he approached a woman in a Crystal City parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks. Maj. Mary Danner-Jones, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said Krusinski was “removed from his position immediately” when the Air Force learned of his arrest.”  [WaPo]

The testimony of the JCS concerning the handling of the sexual assault problems such as those mentioned above didn’t impress Iraq veteran and House member Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI):

“We must provide accountability, which includes ensuring an independent, transparent, fair process for all reports of sexual assault, outside of the chain of command,” Gabbard said.  Gabbard, who remains a member of the Hawaii National Guard, said it “sickens” her that violent crimes occur in the ranks. “This is absolutely unacceptable,” she said.  […] “It is our collective responsibility to bring an end to this epidemic, prosecute these offenders, and provide a safe environment for survivors of sexual assault, upholding the honor and integrity and that make our military strong,” she said. [Army Times]

Representative Gabbard may very well have highlighted the source of the military dilemma — the problematic confluence of individual command and accountability with the need to take collective action to insure the safety of our troops.   If this conflict of interest cannot be resolved within the military command structure, then the military might take a look at the system used by police departments — which also take command structures very seriously — for some guidance.

The second hurdle might be the ability to conceive of an independent review as essential to the operations of a structured unit.  We’ve been down this path before.   During the 1970s police departments in this country were actively engaged in a national debate about independent review boards and agencies.  Most of the opposition to the creation of independent review panels came from police mutual aid societies, police unions, police officials, and conservative interest groups.

Community and public advocacy groups were concerned that police departments were no longer perceived as neutral, dispassionate, or impartial when dealing with some segments of various communities.   [Duke Law, pdf]  The U.S. military may be seen in an analogous position if prominent commanders like Helms and Franklin aren’t considered impartial arbiters of justice.  The military’s position may be even more tenuous if the perception is that whatever “Sarge” wants “Sarge” will get.

For all the controversy over the creation of independent review departments and agencies, the system has worked reasonably well and is in place in most major police departments.  As the International Association of Chiefs of Police observes, the system isn’t perfect, but it is a tool useful in developing better community relations and effective policing:

“Accountability is built and maintained through diligent attention to many facets of the police enterprise, ranging from entry-level selection practices, to ethics and integrity, training, supervision, misconduct policies, and performance evaluation. It is important to place citizen review in its proper context. Citizen review is but one tool among many that can be used to promote and ensure accountability. It is neither a cure-all nor likely to promote desired results unless accompanied by a full package of accountability-building strategies. Over-reliance on these mechanisms can bring disappointment to a community.”  [IACP]

The third hurdle in this obstacle course relates to the point made by the police chiefs, i.e. there are no silver bullets.   The creation of independent review panels won’t be a magic solution so long as a culture of toleration toward assaults obscures the mission of the military.  A culture of toleration won’t be ameliorated by training sessions if the sessions aren’t supported by action.  Actions, such as prosecutions, won’t be the complete response if they aren’t accepted as just by the victims, seen as impartial by the communities, and aren’t substantiated by appeals and reviews.

The fourth hurdle is all too easily forgotten.  Military recruitment in the wake of the Iraq War.  The situation was so dire the Army lowered its standards not once but twice in order to meet recruiting demands.  Defense Department reports in 2008 indicated:

 “In order to meet recruitment targets, the Army has even had to scour the bottom of the barrel. There used to be a regulation that no more than 2 percent of all recruits could be “Category IV”—defined as applicants who score in the 10th to 30th percentile on the aptitude tests. In 2004, just 0.6 percent of new soldiers scored so low. In 2005, as the Army had a hard time recruiting, the cap was raised to 4 percent. And in 2007, according to the new data, the Army exceeded even that limit—4.1 percent of new recruits last year were Cat IVs.” [Slate]

This, in addition to reports from 2007 that the military was relaxing standards concerning criminal records:

“It has also increased the number of so-called “moral waivers” to recruits with criminal pasts, even as the total number of recruits dropped slightly. The sharpest increase was in waivers for serious misdemeanors, which make up the bulk of all the Army’s moral waivers. These include aggravated assault, burglary, robbery and vehicular homicide.  The number of waivers for felony convictions also increased, to 11 percent of the 8,129 moral waivers granted in 2006, from 8 percent.”  [NYT 2007]

There are documented cases of “waiver” members of the military who have conducted themselves dishonorably to the discredit of our Armed Forces — and country.  [Feres Doctrine, download]  As long as the U.S. Armed Forces are required to downgrade standards for intelligence and moral behavior we ought not to become too alarmed by the consequences when some who have been engaged in serious misdemeanors before recruitment indulge a predilection for anti-social  behavior thereafter.

The fifth hurdle presents itself as the form of the  training these recruits (and officers) receives.   Francine Banner’s work on the Feres Doctine adds some insight:

“Until very recently, the DoD response to rising rates of sexual assault has been to engage in “soft” approaches, such as advertising campaigns and lighthearted presentations, such as “Sex Signals” and “Can I Kiss You?” Campaigns such as “Ask Her When She’s Sober,” “What a Rapist Looks Like” and “Bystander Intervention”  perpetuate the perception that most sexual assaults occur in a “he said/she said” situation in which anyone could cross a line.  “(Primarily male) troops are not encouraged to cease sexually pursuing (primarily female) co-workers but to become better at recognizing the “signals” those co-workers are sending.”  [Feres Doctrine, download]

Unfortunately this type of “education” merely serves to perpetuate the “boys will be boys unless the girls really really really say No” mentality, and the boys aren’t necessarily warned off unwarranted and unwanted behavior — just informed how to interpret the “no” signals which should in all likelihood never have been necessary in the first place.  The Army appears to be making some progress toward a more enlightened approach in its current SHARP program, in which members of the service are encouraged to “Intervene, Act, and Motivate” others to denounce sexual misconduct.

Even with the well intentioned answers to common questions about sexual assault and harassment in the SHARP website, the problem of reporting still remains…  the site gives all the usual advice one might receive from a local police officer, but the reporting will still be predominantly within the chain of command.  A person in command who has no more sexual assault prevention training than the advertising and “soft” touch videos may not be the best person to determine whether a case should proceed.

Navigating the Course

The first thing the JCS may wish to consider is either dropping its opposition to independent prosecution of sexual assault and related crimes, or at the least creating an independent review panel charged with the oversight and accountability of the prosecutions.  The second is to divest itself of any notion that a single approach will cure the problems — just as the modern Armed Forces are tasked with fighting asymmetrical operations they need to understand sexual assault as a multifaceted issue.   Further, we need to give serious consideration to the quality of the individuals being recruited into the U.S. military — reducing the number of “moral waivers” would be advisable.   If there is one thing the Armed Forces generally do well it’s training.  Since the Army has already determined its previous attempts at training in this realm were unsatisfactory, its endeavors to improve should be congratulated but continually monitored for efficacy.

All in all, Senator Reid is correct, the current system is not working. However, it’s going to take more than legislation, more than structural  reforms, and more than better recruitment and training to solve the problem.   It will take a truly Zero Tolerance attitude unencumbered by outdated attitudes and inadequate incentives for change.  And, we need this done by “yesterday.”

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