Jun 092013

While the furor over sexual assault in the military has been raging for quite some time, it is significant that it is only now that the Pentagon is finally being called out for their continuing objections to reconsidering the way sexual assault and harassment cases are adjudicated because of their fears that it will undermine good order and the authority of the chain of command, an opinion that is vehemently held across the various branches of the military:

“A commander is responsible and accountable for everything that happens in his or her unit,” Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said in a May 17 letter to Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and James H. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the Senate Armed Services Committee’s chairman and ranking Republican. “Victims need to know that their commander holds offenders accountable, not some unknown third-party prosecutor.”

Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, warned the senators in a May 20 letter that taking away commanders’ authority in matters of military justice “will adversely impact discipline and may result in an increase in the problems we seek to resolve.”

“Sexual assault remains an unacceptable problem for our military and society,” Odierno added. “We cannot, however, simply ‘prosecute’ our way out of this problem. At its heart, sexual assault is a discipline issue that requires a culture change.”…

…“Removing commanders from the military justice process sends the message to everyone in the military that there is a lack of faith in the officer corps,” (General Martin) Dempsey wrote on May 20. “Conveyance of a message that commanders cannot be trusted will only serve to undermine good order and discipline.”


To state the obvious, we would never allow a rapist’s boss to decide whether or not to prosecute him in the civilian world and the notion that good order can be maintained while predators roam free is repugnant.

But yet again last week, uniformed witness after witness somberly told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the military has “zero tolerance” (1) for sexual assault and programs are in place, services are being provided, soldiers and officers are being trained and they’ve got the problem under control.

Despite the fact that the continuing epidemic of sexual assault in the military belies the Pentagon’s assertion that they are getting on top of the problem, military brass once again also dug in their heels in opposition to changing the current system of adjudication that gives the chain of command authority in sexual assault and harassment cases. Time and again witnesses at last week’s hearing  insisted that allowing the chain of command huge discretion in these cases was appropriate and necessary for maintaining good order and readiness. (2)

But in the last few weeks, numerous incidents have come to light demonstrating that the military is far from being on top of this crisis. To borrow shamelessly from Shakespeare, methinks the generals doth protest too much:

1.  A sergeant first class on the staff of the United States Military Academy at West Point has been accused of videotaping female cadets without their consent, sometimes when they were undressed in the bathroom or the shower, according to Army officials.

2.  The Army is investigating Sgt. 1st Class Gregory McQueen, a sexual abuse educator at Fort Hood in Texas, for allegedly running a small-time prostitution ring and for the sexual assault of another soldier, senior military officials have confirmed. This is only one of several incidents of military personnel in charge of sexual assault programs charged with sexual assault themselves.

3.  The rugby team of West Point military academy has been disbanded and players disciplined over an email chain involving crude sexual references and suggesting a ‘hostile team environment or a culture of disrespect towards women.’

4.  Three Naval Academy football players are under investigation for sexually assaulting a female Navy midshipman, officials confirmed on Thursday to Military.com (which also) reported that the number of assaults at the Naval Academy in 2012 was 15, up from 11 in 2011. (emphasis mine) One of these assaults allegedly by a former Academy instructor, who stands accused of sexually assaulting one midshipman and having consensual sex with another, according to the Navy Times. Marine Maj. Mark Thompson faces up to 30 years in prison.

5.  Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin…overruled a guilty verdict because he had personal suspicions about the credibility of the woman who made the accusation…Franklin, according to a letter the (Washington) Post obtained, believed it was impossible that the convicted man, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, could have committed the “egragious crime of sexually assaulting a sleeping woman” because he was a “doting father and husband.”  He also had been tapped for promotion.

6.  On May 21, Army Brig. Gen. Bryan T. Roberts, the top commander at Fort Jackson, S.C., was suspended for allegedly having a physical altercation with a mistress…Another one-star Army general, Jeffrey Sinclair, the former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, is scheduled to face a court-martial in July on charges that he sexually assaulted a female captain. And in March, Army Maj. Gen. Ralph O. Baker, who led a counterterrorism force in Africa, was fired for allegedly groping a woman while he was under the influence of alcohol.


In order to truly address the problem, it is obviously necessary to really understand it.  Slate wonders if this is the case,

What is more upsetting than the current numbers (since, sadly, there is a yearly parade of dismal figures) are the signs that many in the military still have such a narrow, misguided understanding of the dynamics of rape. For example, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh noted that 20 percent of women report they had been sexually assaulted before they came into the military and blamed that on “the hookup mentality,” which he implied they carry with them into the military. Aside from the fact that hookup culture might not be nearly was widespread as current parental hysteria may lead us to believe, the real problem with Welsh’s statement is that hookups, whether we like them or not, are voluntary. They are not the same as assault or rape.

This backward thinking permeates and taints the Air Force’s education and awareness efforts. An Air Force brochure, for example, unhelpfully portrays sexual assault as largely a problem of violent stranger rape. But the reality is that most rapists usually target acquaintances and are more likely to incapacitate their victims rather than use outright violence, and they tend to offend repeatedly.

Gen. Martin Dempsey however at least partially does understand the problem, suggesting,

that the sexual assault problem has been aggravated by the strains of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Professor David Segal, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Research on Military Organization, said such strains are a key factor in the surge of suicides, spousal abuse and other problems in addition to sexual assault.

What Professor Segal says is exactly right. When we promote a national policy of violent power-over that is most definitely going to become a part of the personal lives of those we send to commit those actions. There is evidence of that in every single war that has ever been fought. And as  Mary Louise Roberts, points out in her book, “What Soldiers Do Sex and the American G.I. in World War II France” even soldiers who fought the so called great war were not above such violence,

This isn’t the “greatest generation” as it has come to be depicted in popular histories. But in “What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American G.I. in World War II France,” the historian Mary Louise Roberts draws on French archives, American military records, wartime propaganda and other sources to advance a provocative argument: The liberation of France was “sold” to soldiers not as a battle for freedom but as an erotic adventure among oversexed Frenchwomen, stirring up a “tsunami of male lust” that a battered and mistrustful population often saw as a second assault on its sovereignty and dignity.

Sexualized violence has always been a part of militarism in this country and throughout the world.  Both are ways of controlling and exerting power over an other–be it a person or a country.  And as I have said many times before, that is at the root of why this problem is so difficult to address–to do so would be to question the mission of the military and the validity of the concept of chain of command and good order.


The question is, in the face of military insistence that they can address the problem and preserve the traditional chain of command, what is to be done as the epidemic rages on.  Much credit goes to women in Congress, particularly Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand who has spearheaded the most recent hearings on the subject and Sen. Claire McCaskill who last week made clear that she will continue to

block the promotion of a star Air Force general for granting clemency to a convicted sex offender, a move that is likely to end the commander’s military career.

Numerous bills addressing the issue have also been introduced in Congress this session, mostly by women.

And as Think Progress notes, late last week,

the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 (NDAA), a massive $638 billion bill designed to fund all military spending and chart military policy for the for the coming fiscal year…

…In the light of the multitude of scandals and damning reports of sexual assault within the ranks of the military, the HASC added several provisions to the NDAA that reforms the current military justice system. Under the new language, military commanders will be stripped of their ability to dismiss the findings of courts-martial’s juries, something that the military’s leadership has opposed. Commanders will also be unable to reduce sentences imposed on those found guilty of sexual crimes, as one general did in the case that first launched the renewed interest in the issue in February.

In addition, new minimum sentencing guidelines for sexual assault in the military were included, while also adding rape, sexual assault, or other sexual misconduct to the protected communications of service members with a Member of Congress or an Inspector General, essentially bringing protections for those who report military sexual assault in line with those for government whistleblowers.

A great deal of credit is also due to activists, many former members of the military who have experienced sexual violence and harassment themselves who have worked relentlessly on this and testified in front of Congress, particularly Anu Bhagwati, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) who recently pointed out that, “we aren’t likely to see much change in military culture until there’s a critical mass of women at the top.” Ms. Bhagwati has also quite rightly pointed out that a high proportion of women in the military are non-whites and as a result make up a large proportion of the victims of these crimes but that their stories tend to be marginalized, with victims who are white getting more attention (a problem in the recent critically acclaimed movie, The Invisible War).

Women in the military absolutely have the right to be compensated equally for their work and to do any job that a man does and to do so without fear of sexual harassment and assault.  Those are basic human rights we all should have.  But equality is not sufficient in a system that perpetuates the very problem you are trying to resolve.


I have spoken out against sexual assault and harassment in the military many times.  I have written about the lack of access to basic reproductive services including abortion in the military and I have called out the way in which white women and women of color are treated differently in the military and in the media.  But I have also spoken about this from a broader context of the historic impact that militarism has on women’s lives both in and out of the military, in our country and in the world.  The bottom line is, if you look back to the beginning of patriarchy–militarism has done a great deal of harm and the impact on women has been severe.  Which leads to a huge Catch 22–the very system in which you seek to gain equal and safe footing is the root cause of the problems faced by women in the military.

If we are serious about ending the culture of impunity that allows for sexual assault in the military, the unfortunate truth is that we have to re-examine the military ethos and how we defend our country and what constitutes a legitimate threat to our safety.  That is an enormous task and one that will be deeply uncomfortable for many.  In regard to sexual assault in the ranks, it is particularly helpful to see this as one of many ways in which women are harmed by militarism.  Professor Cynthia Enloe has written about this many times and in her recent book, Nimo’s War, Emma’s War:  Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War, she comments about a series that ran in the Denver Post in 2003,

One had to look simultaneously at the male soldiers’ violence against women as fellow soldiers and at male soldiers’ violence against wives and girlfriends.  While domestic violence in military families and sexual assault within the ranks might be filed in two separate categories, that conceptualization would prevent uncovering a meaningful, useful explanation.  The explanation at the root of both, the Denver Post reporters and many feminist analysts concluded, was the dominant culture shaping the twenty-first-century U.S. military.  It was, they each found, an institutional culture that privileged a certain kind of combative masculinity, a culture that denied the mental health consequences of waging war, a culture that prioritized fighting a war and treated women as minor players at best, as a subverting distraction at worst. (p. 187)

Enloe also examines how the Iraq war impacted women in Iraq and this is a crucial thing to do.  While soldiers in our own military are being sexually assaulted, Iraqi women have also been sexually victimized as a result of war.  In this country, women veterans, particularly those who have been sexually assaulted are finding themselves homeless.  In the aftermath of the fighting in Iraq, many women there became homeless as well, making them vulnerable to sex traffickers.

In this country, military wives have also experienced increased violence at the hands of soldier husbands/partners/boyfriends.  In Iraq, the number of honor killings rose sharply in  the aftermath of the U.S. invasion.  As Enloe notes, it is important to see the linkage between those different forms of harm on all sides of conflicts.  Such linkage could and should be made about every military conflict. (3)

The recent hearings and increased media attention to sexual violence in the military are essential, as are fundamental changes in the way these cases are prosecuted and how victims are supported.  But in the end, they will not be sufficient to eradicate a problem that is a systemic part of militarism itself.

Robert C. Koehler wrote recently that,”Maybe the problem is that rape is an extension of military culture.”  There is no maybe about it, that is indeed true.



(1) As for “zero tolerance”,

Military leaders have been claiming for at least 20 years that they have “zero tolerance” for sexual assault in the ranks, during which time the epidemic has raged on, infecting every branch of the service and spurring arrests, convictions, resignations, investigations, Congressional hearings, bills, speeches, reports, recommendations and, recently, a chilling documentary, “The Invisible War,” which will make any parent think twice about encouraging a daughter to serve her country in uniform.


“The military says they have zero tolerance, but in fact that’s not true,” said Dr. Katherine Scheirman, a retired Air Force colonel with more than 20 years of service in the U.S. and abroad. “Having a sexual assault case in your unit is considered something bad, so commanders have had an incredible incentive not to destroy their own careers by prosecuting someone.”

(2) Former Defense Secretary Colin Powell recently weighed in on whether or not those convicted should be dishonorably discharged, saying,

…that U.S. troops convicted of sexual assault should not be automatically dishonorably discharged from the military.

“You can’t make a categorical statement like that,” he told Bloomberg TV. “We have a military justice system that is driven by our law, and it is not that dissimilar to the civilian system.”

Despite the high rate of sexual assault and instances of convictions being overturned by commanders, Powell said the military justice system was working.”

In other words, using Powell’s magical thinking,  you can commit an act of sexual assault but still serve honorably and declare that justice has been served.

(3) As another example, Roberts’ book quoted in this piece talked about the sexual victimization of women in France by U.S. soldiers in World War II while at the same time, Japanese soldiers were availing themselves of “comfort women”.


Lucinda Marshall is the Founder and Director of the Feminist Peace Network and has writes frequently about militarism and and sexual violence.

Lucinda Marshall, ©2013

 June 9, 2013  Posted by on June 9, 2013

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