Naked Power Challenged

18 May

Forced to Salute Abusive AuthorityIs there a course where senior military officials learn to sound as lame as Chuck Hagel – a former Army officer?

Defence secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday ordered the military to recertify every person involved in programmes designed to prevent and respond to sexual assault, an acknowledgement that assaults have escalated beyond the Pentagon’s control.

He said this step is one among many that will be taken to fix the problem of sexual abuse and sexual harassment within every branch of the military.

At a news conference with General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Hagel said he believes alcohol use is “a very big factor” in many sexual assault and sexual harassment cases, but there are many pieces to the problem.

Hagel said it has become clear to him since taking office in February that holding people accountable for their actions is important, but simply firing people is not a solution.

“Who are you going to fire?” he asked.

A catalyst for congressional outrage has been the disclosure in recent days of at least two cases in which a military member with responsibility for sexual assault prevention programs has himself been accused of sexual misconduct.

Earlier on Friday, the air force’s top general said that sexual assaults in his branch of the military typically involve alcohol use and can be traced to a lack of respect for women.

Seriously, alcohol? You don’t have to be a woman to understand why the chain of command is the wrong locus for judicial authority. Fortunately, Congress sees the problem.

The chain of command is a foundational structure of military discipline. But recently, that structure has proven to be less than perfectly stable. The armed forces are reeling from three high-profile recent arrests or investigations on sexual-assault related charges of Air Force and Army officers responsible for sexual-assault prevention efforts. President Obama yesterday summoned Hagel, Welsh, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and the rest of the military leadership to the White House to demand the military promptly fix a vexing and longstanding problem.

Taking prosecutions outside of the chain of command is the biggest of the proposed fixes. The idea is that prosecutions within the chain of command create an incentive for higher-ranking officers to go easy on their subordinates. It additionally creates fears of reprisal for reporting a co-worker for sexual assault, which function as a deterrent to reporting the crime in the first place. According to the most recent military statistics, servicemembers reported only 3,374 cases of sexual assault out of an estimated 26,000 such incidents last year; only 38 percent of active-duty servicewomen who reported the offense said they experienced no reprisal.

“I feel if I didn’t have to report to my chain of command and if military sexual trauma assault was not so hush and was being talked about more, I would have said something,” ABC quoted an Army rape survivor saying.

But if the military isn’t willing to relinquish sexual assault prosecutions from the chain of command, Congress is increasingly willing to legislate exactly that. Several recent House bills propose creating independent offices — some civilian, some military, some mixed — to take control of sexual assault cases. Those efforts got super-sized yesterday when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bipartisan, bicameral bill to remove the prosecutions of all crimes that carry a sentence of over a year from the chain of command.

As in assault itself, this is not about gender. It’s about power.

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