Military Sexual Assault: the Status Quo Simply Will Not Cut It

As reported recently in the New York Times, Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has stripped Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's (D-N.Y.) amendment to a defense spending bill that gives military prosecutors, rather than commanders, the authority to decide which sexual assault cases to try. This amendment is meant to empower victims of sexual assault in the United States military, of which there are some 26,000 every year, to report attacks with less fear of retribution from what is an unquestionably anti-victim system.

Senator Levin has traded Senator Gillibrand's amendment, which had 27 co-sponsors, including four Republicans, for one that requires a senior military official to review cases in which commanders decided to not try the case. This keeps decision-making power within the chain of command, as the military would like.

While on first glance this seems like a good compromise to the solution, I urge you to think about this. The Department of Defense itself estimates that 26,000 of U.S. servicemen and women experience sexual assault at the hands of a fellow member of the military every year. At present, military commanders have the authority to overturn guilty verdicts in court-martial cases without any public explanation. If you were in the military and were sexually assaulted, would you undergo the serious difficulties associated with coming forward (including but not limited to more abuse, arbitrary transfer, and even dishonorable discharge) if you knew that even if your rapist was found guilty, his or her verdict could be simply overturned by a commander?

This practice is flat-out wrong and has to be changed. In the words of Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the military can't "train" its way out of sexual assault.  This is a huge, endemic problem that stems from a military culture that, in the words of victims who testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee this past March, is actively hostile toward that which is perceived as "feminine" or "less-than."  

In order to address a crisis of these proportions, maintaining the status quo simply isn't going to cut it. While military leaders may not like having authority over these cases handed over to prosecutors, they have demonstrated an inability to address this problem. It is time for a change, and Senator Gillibrand’s amendment is an excellent first step. It is disheartening to see a strong move to address this problem cast aside in favor of more of the same.