The Pentagon celebrated the sixth anniversary of the Iraq War this week by releasing its annual report on military sexual assault.
The numbers are disturbing. Reports of sexual assault have risen 8 percent in military as a whole. In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, they have shot up by 26 percent.
Yet to the Department of Defense this is good news.
As Kaye Whitley, director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), said at a press briefing at the Pentagon on March 17 (CSPAN), "The numbers have gone up and I reiterate: this does not mean sexual assaults have gone up, this means the number of reports have gone up, which we see as very positive as we're getting the victims in to get care."
Actually, no one can tell if an increase in reported sexual assaults means more assaults or more reports. To say otherwise is nonsense, especially given the fact that few than 10 percent or so of assaults are reported at all, as the DoD admits in its own report. (Report, p. 51)
The only accurate way to measure military sexual assault is to rely on veterans who are no longer afraid to report it, and those studies indicate no good news at all. Nearly a third of military women are raped, some 71 percent are sexually assaulted, and 90 percent are sexually harassed. Men, too, are assaulted in alarming numbers. Recent VA statistics show that 59,345 men have reported sexual abuse in the service.
Given that the purpose of SAPRO is to encourage sexual assault victims to report and seek help, it's worth taking a look through the report itself -- a document as convoluted and jargon-ridden as one would expect from the DoD -- to see what message it is really giving to victims.
Let's take a soldier called, say, Sarah. Sarah, who is 2O, has been raped by her 27-year-old sergeant after he pretended to be nice to her and plied her with drink. (The report reveals that 71 percent of victims are between 16 and 24 and in the lowest ranks, while 59.5 percent of assailants are between 20 and 34 and are in higher ranks. The use of alcohol in rape is high.)
Because military platoons are enclosed, hierarchical societies, riddled with gossip, Sarah knows that if she reports the sexual assault everyone will know, including her sergeant, whether she gives her name or not. She will have to face that sergeant day after day, who might well try to punish her for revenge, and she will have to put up with resentment and blame from her fellow soldiers who will likely see her as a traitor and a snitch out to ruin her sergeant's career. Furthermore, because military culture demands that all soldiers keep their pain and distress to themselves, reporting an assault will make her look weak and cowardly.
But suppose Sarah braves all this and reports her assault to the authorities anyway. The most likely outcome is that her case will be thrown out, either because she wasn't able to come up with enough proof, or because her command will say something like, "We will pursue your accusations, but we'll also charge you with underage drinking and ruin your career. So you better shut up." In 2008, 49.4 percent of prosecutions were thrown out because, as the report phrases it, they "lacked sufficient evidence, involved a victim that recanted [read intimidated into silence], or involved a subject or victim who died." (report, p. 36)
If Sarah nonetheless perseveres, and her sergeant is sent to court-martial -- which happened in a mere 10.9 of all the reported assaults in 2008 -- and if he is found guilty, he is most likely to be punished with "nonjudicial punishments" or "administrative actions and discharges." Even in the rare cases the military had deemed solid enough to prosecute in 2008, 62 percent of the perpetrators got away with a slap on the wrist.
Finally, if Sarah tries to find out what the conviction rate of sexual predators is, perhaps looking for some reason to brave all the cross-examinations, hostility, and traumatizing methods of military investigations, she will be told that the SAPRO office doesn't keep those figures at all.
Given these outcomes, it is a wonder anyone in the military reports sexual assault at all.
Watching last Tuesday's press conference on CSPAN, when Whitley and her sidekick, Robert Reed, Associate Deputy General Counsel, tried to put a positive spin on this dismal reality was like watching two earwigs squirming on a pin.
When, for example, a puzzled reporter asked Whitley what made her so sure that the rise in reports reflected more reporting and not more rapes, she got a reiteration of the reasoning printed in the report itself:
"Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in the United States. Estimates suggest that only a small percentage of sexual assaults are ever reported to the police. The Department expects that the same is true for military society as well. An increase in the number of reported cases means that the Department is capturing a greater proportion of the cases occurring each year." (Report, p. 33)
In other words, the DoD knows assaults aren't rising because rape is so underreported. Huh?
When another baffled reporter asked why on earth the report contained no information about the rates of conviction, all the DoD's counsel Robert Reed could say was that those figures were collected by different departments of the military in different branches. "But why didn't SAPRO collect these numbers for the report?" the reporter asked again, more baffled than ever. Reed did his earwig squirm and dodged the question by repeating what he'd just said, several times.
Could the Defense Department possibly be avoiding mentioning those conviction rates because they are so embarrassingly low?
If the Pentagon were serious about preventing and prosecuting sexual assault in the military, all this squirming would not be necessary. Instead, this is what it would do.
Fire Whitley, Reed and all the rest of the PR flacks the DoD parades out there to fudge the statistics. Put in their stead a survivor of military rape dedicated to telling the truth.
This survivor would stand up and say, "The rate of sexual assault in our military is a national scandal. We are going to address this by protecting every victim who reports, by making it a court-martial offense to intimidate anyone out of reporting or to block the investigation in any way, and by punishing any commander overseeing a unit in which assaults occur.
"We are also going to follow the civilian practice of putting the burden of proof on investigators, not on the victim. We are no longer going to make victims face their assailants or pay for their own rape evidence kits, as they must do now. We are going to reduce our dismissed cases dramatically. And we are going to prosecute, imprison and expel from the military anyone who is found to have committed sexual or domestic violence against fellow service members or civilians."
Until the Pentagon makes these declarations, and follows through on them, any claim that its sexual assault reports contain good news is nonsense.
Helen Benedict, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, just out from Beacon Press. Her articles on female soldiers won the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism in 2008.