United States military commanders today were given a dressing down in a Senate hearing addressing the rise of sexual assault cases — with one Army General labelling it "a cancer in the force."
Senators and the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard gathered for the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday. It was emotionally charged, with accusations levelled at the leaders for not cracking down on sexual abuse claims earlier.
Army General Ray Odierno called it: "a cancer within the force — a cancer that left untreated will destroy the fabric of our force," but the acknowledgment was overshadowed by the chiefs' attempts to fight against legislation that, if passed, would remove from military commanders the right to oversee military prosecutions for crimes such as sexual assault.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said: "Our goal should be to hold commanders more accountable, not render them less able to help us correct this crisis. The commander's responsibility to preserve order and discipline is essential to affecting change."
The Department of Defense's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office last year in their 2012 Annual Report indicated that 3374 cases of sexual assault were reported — and placed the number of anonymous claims at a staggering 26,000.
These numbers show that the "cancer" has metastasized into a full-blown problem, indicating years of negligence and poor handling by the armed services that spans from the top down.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is the chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel. She has been vociferous in her criticism of military top brass, and is the lead sponsor of the bill that aims to strip power from commanders. Gillibrand did not hold back on her criticism today.
"Not all commanders are objective," she said. "Not every single commander necessarily wants women on the force, not every commander believes what a sexual assault is, not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all of these crimes together."
The apologetic-yet-defensive attitude shown by military leaders such as Dempsey suggests that while they are appropriately contrite, those at the top of the armed services food chain are two steps behind in their efforts to address the crisis.
The large number of reported assaults in 2012 alone, as well as the horrifying number of anonymous claims, drives home how broken the mechanisms for punishing crimes such as rape and harassment within the Army really are.
Anu Bhagwati is a former Marine and the executive director of the Service Women's Action Network. Last month she spoke about how commanding officers hush up cases even when they are reported:
"Commanding officers — they're called convening authorities—have authority from beginning to end of a trial. They determine whether or not a case even goes forward, whether or not the accused even sees the inside of a court-martial. That's where a lot of the intimidation happens. That's where a lot of victims feel the fear. They're not supported. They don't follow through with their cases."
Despite the Army's purported "zero tolerance" policy towards sexual offences, it is obviously unable to deal with the problem of sexual abuse itself. Extra resources will do little to change the ingrained culture of harassment, sexism, and cronyism that allows those within the armed services to act with such impunity that results in 26,000 claims of sexual abuse in one year.
Fresh eyes and ears, with no compelling military influence bearing down on them are what is required. Gillibrand's proposed bill may be unpopular with bigwigs unable to fathom not being in control, but this "cancer" needs treatment that they are seemingly too weak to offer.
At least one senator is on their side somewhat, confusing the military with a 15-year-old's first sleep-away camp. "Gee whiz, the level — the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur," Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said.