The Senate Armed Services Committee, chaired by Carl Levin, has just voted down an amendment championed by Kirsten Gillibrand which would have stripped from the chain of command the decisions on prosecuting sexual assaults in the military. Although the amendment had 28 co-sponsors (including four Republicans), Levin voted against it and the measure will not be part of the military bill they're currently working on. Gillibrand can still bring it back up when the bill gets to the floor (or the House could pass it in their version), but its chances for passage at this point seem somewhat diminished. Levin offered his own way to tackle the problem which does not take the prosecution decision out of the hands of the commanders but does achieve several other positive reforms, including removing the power to overturn a jury's verdict in such cases from the commanding officers.
This news comes as a disappointment to many (including many in Congress) who are downright fed up with the military continually promising to fix this problem, only to then do next to nothing about it. The big Pentagon brass all swear before a congressional committee every year, like clockwork, that they'll just get right on the problem... and then a year goes by and the dog-and-pony show is run again, with exactly the same things said and exactly the same lack of any progress. Refresh my memory: when did the Tailhook scandal happen? Wasn't that when Bush was president? No, no... not that Bush... his father. That's how long the military's had to clean up its act -- since 1991. And yet here we are.
Most of the media covered this year's "big brass" committee hearing with all the subtlety of Beavis and Butthead. They had a clip of a female senator using the phrase "slap on the ass," and so that's what they went with (repeatedly). But the most damning question actually came from Senator Jack Reed, who asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff whether their branch had ever disciplined or fired any commander for not handling a sexual assault case correctly. Only the Army and the Coast Guard could name anyone who had been fired. Which leaves the Navy, the Air Force, and the Marines -- three branches of the service whose commanders have either chalked up a perfect record in their exemplary handling of sexual assault cases, or who just have zero accountability for commanders to get it right. Given the numbers, I would bet on the latter of those two choices.
To put this another way, most commanders have obviously gotten the message from their bosses at the Pentagon: do whatever you want on rape cases and sexual assault cases, because your career will not suffer in any way whatsoever -- no matter what actions you choose. This is the core problem. There simply is no accountability in the chain of command. Which is why some politicians want to strip them of even having this power in the first place.
While I personally was disappointed to hear that Levin's committee voted down the amendment proposed by Gillibrand and 27 other senators, I would say it was a warning shot across the bow (to use a military expression) towards the Pentagon. Patience is wearing thin, guys. You may succeed this year in defeating this particular proposal, but you'll be right back in the hot seat again in one year's time. If Levin's proposal makes it through, then some incremental changes will happen in the military policy towards sexual assault and the command structure that is supposed to deal with such crimes. But the real change in culture must come from within.
So, this is now your high-priority mission. Fix the problem. Fire some commanders. End some commanders' careers if they continue to ignore the problem or even actively try to make it go away. Make some examples, and do so in the glaring eye of the media. Send an absolutely unequivocal message to everyone in this chain of command: this will change, or Congress will change it for us.
Every one of the guys sitting in front of the committee, complete with the acres of medals on their chests and bedecked with gold fringe, all made essentially the same assertion: if commanders are stripped of their powers to decide when to prosecute, then the entire military chain of command will somehow collapse into chaos. OK, fine -- if that's your position, then let's see how hard you work to prove that the problem can be solved within that chain of command.
To put it bluntly, if the numbers that come out next year on the incidence of sexual assault in the military (and the accompanying conviction rate for such crimes) are just as bad as they were this year, then we can honestly say that Levin's experiment has failed. You won the congressional battle this time around, but the public is paying attention now. This isn't going to go away. You've already got over one-fourth of the Senate visibly annoyed with your lack of progress, and that number is just going to grow next year if you report equally miserable results.
The claim from every head of the armed services that the military can solve this problem and leave intact the chain of command issues is about to be tested. Issue your orders to your subordinates. Let it be known that the "look the other way" and "boys will be boys" culture is over. Period. The first commander who doesn't get this message and tries to sweep something under a rug -- gets fired. The second commander to do so -- also gets fired. Keep on firing officers who refuse to take the crime of sexual assault seriously until there are no more such officers left to fire. Trust me -- you won't have to fire all your commanders, because the ones who remain will very quickly get the message loud and clear, and they will soon clean up their own act in fear of also being fired. Let it be known that there will be consequences all the way up the chain of command for bad decisions. Let a few heads roll.
You've got one year. The problem is obvious. The solution must be drastic and immediate. In next year's committee hearing, every single member of the Joint Chiefs should have at hand an extensive list of officers who have been cashiered because they refused to take sexual assault seriously. The time of dog-and-pony shows is over. The message should be crystal clear by now: if the Pentagon doesn't clean up its act within one year, then Congress will act and they will do something you don't want them to do. Those are your consequences, Generals and Admirals. If you achieve your mission, then there will (obviously) be no need for Congress to take drastic action. But it's going to require some pretty immediate drastic action on your own part to prove it. Tailhook happened twenty-two years ago. You've got one more year to get it right. Use the time wisely.
[Correction: When this article was originally published, it included Claire McCaskill's name, but Kirsten Gillibrand is the senator who introduced the amendment and it seems McCaskill sided with Levin, so her name has been removed. I apologize for the error.]
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