Hearings on the widespread problem of sexual assault in the U.S. military took place before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, and senators were reportedly often left exasperated at some of the responses they received from military leaders. Along with victims' advocates, the Joint Chiefs' of Staff and other military leaders testified Tuesday, and while they recognized that sexual assault in the military is a serious problem, Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri labelled their responses to questions about what the military was doing to address the problem "stunningly bad."
While there is a growing consensus amongst activists, politicians, and military leaders regarding the problem of sexual assault in the military and the inadequate response to date, there is still no consensus on how to tackle the issue. On Tuesday military leaders signalled their resistance to taking prosecution out of the chain of command, but if they are serious about addressing the problem then they must be willing to consider all options.
Sexual assault in the military has long been an issue, but it has gained increasing attention recently following films such as The Invisible War, which documents sexual assault in the U.S. military. Earlier this month the Pentagon released a study showing that an astounding 26,000 people in the armed forces are estimated to have been sexual assaulted in 2012, up from 19,000 in 2010. The response from a Congress demanding action led to the hearing which took place on Tuesday.
During the hearing, Blunt and other senators expressed dismay at the answers given to them by military leaders, who did not seem prepared for the questions they were asked. At one point an exasperated Blunt responded to the chief of naval operations, Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert's lack of knowledge regarding how military allies around the world have handled sexual assault within their forces, saying, "has anybody who works for you been asking this?" Summing up the responses of military leaders to questions about how the U.S. military was handling the problem of sexual assault, Blunt said they were "stunningly bad."
Military leaders collectively resisted the idea of any plans that took responsibility for prosecuting sexual assault cases outside the chain of command during the hearing, and some senators, including Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan and Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma, also voiced their opposition. The proposal, put forward by Democrat Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York, would give the power to decide which sexual assault cases to try to military prosecutors, rather than commanders. The central goal of the proposal, Gillibrand says, is to encourage more victims of sexual assault to come forward and report it. Many victims remain fearful of reporting assaults under the present system due to the prospect of retaliation or lack of justice.
Highlighting his opposition to Gillibrand's proposal, General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said that he recommends a "measured approach" to dealing with the issue, and that making commanders "less responsible and less accountable will not work." Military leaders all concurred that while the issue is serious, commanders are equipped to handle it. Levin emphasized that in the military the "the tone is set from the top of [the] chain," and that "only the chain of command can establish a "zero tolerance" policy for sexual offenses." Gillibrand, however, says that only the most serious crimes, such as rape and murder, would involve commanders being removed from the process. Moreover, she said that while she recognized the importance of the chain of command in setting the tone in the military, there is a difference between setting the tone and actually dealing with serious crimes, and that there has been a failure to deal with sexual assault in the military to date.
While the fact that the hearings are taking place, and that politicians and military leaders agree that the issue of sexual assault in the military is a serious problem is a good thing, this needs to be backed up by bold, concerted action to address it. If politicians and military leaders are serious about addressing the issue and creating a culture where victims feel safe enough to report sexual assaults and where incidents of sexual assault decrease, then they must be willing to consider all the options on the table. It is clear that the present system is not working, and setting the right tone from the top is important. And one way for military leaders and politicians to do this, even if they might not like the idea, is to show that they are willing to consider removing responsibility from the chain of command in some cases.