[This post was written by Daniel de Lisle]
‘No sex offender may come into the military.’ Americans may hope that this simple premise is a long-held doctrine, one enshrined in an honor code, or carefully chiselled into a wall somewhere. In fact, it was a policy included in a bill by President Obama last month, and US military recruits are, as they arrive at their boot camp, more than twice as likely to have committed a sexual assault than the equivalent civilian, and an estimated 19,000 sexual assaults occurred in the military in 2010 alone. These are a few of the shocking facts that informed a debate held after a screening on Wednesday night of the documentary The Invisible War, which includes interviews with some of the many men and women who have been raped while serving. On the panel were Kirby Dick, director of the film, and Maria Cuomo Cole, executive producer; Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who both serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee; Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, M.D., a senior fellow on the New America Foundation’s Health Policy Program and former US assistant surgeon general; and Michèle Flournoy, who was until recently Under Secretary of Defense for policy.
Following the screening, the panel was faced with what was now an informed audience, and an audience informed on this issue is one rightly outraged. The entire panel shared this sentiment, and a feeling that there was a moral imperative to bring “systemic change to a systemic problem” (the film shows a military training video that concludes with the advice “ask her when she’s sober”). Michèle Flournoy set the tone when she stated that the top-down military command structure is at odds with reports of sexual assault that, by their very nature, need to go up, rather than down, the command chain. She also praised Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s decision last year to take responsibility for pursuing investigations away from the victim’s immediate line commander, and to give it to higher military authorities. Indeed, a quarter of all victims in the military did not report the crime because the perpetrator was the person designated to accept the report. Flournoy went on to say that “a true no-tolerance policy would be that every assailant ends up in jail and/or with a dishonourable discharge. That’s accountability.”
In terms of how this tough stance might be put in place, Senator Blumenthal, both a former Attorney General for Connecticut and a former Marine, said that he’d met with staff of the Joint Chiefs that very day. In the meeting he and other senators pushed for greater research to be done, so that more accurate numbers might illustrate the true extent of the crimes, particularly with regard to sexual assault on men. In his view, the military would do well to adopt civilian courts’ rules for keeping evidence, and to treat it as a very specific and violent crime, rather than just as an “occupational hazard” (a term actually used in military lawyers’ briefs to describe rape while serving, a usage that defies belief). He recommended that there should be measures to stop investigations by officers becoming interrogations, in which the victims are repeatedly questioned on whether they had a boyfriend, or are dismissed as flirts. Senator Gillibrand suggested something that could be done right away is to protect rape victims from being charged with “crimes” such as adultery (in the words of one victim about her attacker: “He was married, I was not, and I was charged with adultery”).
The senators talked of achieving systemic change, but they also alluded to the difficulties that they might face in trying to push through such change. This left the question: who is opposing this? Who is unwilling to see proven rapists brought to justice? Part of the answer might be found in a 2008 congressional hearing before the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, featured briefly in The Invisible War. In one striking scene, the head of the Army’s task force to prevent sexual crime, Dr. Kaye Whitley, had been called to appear at the hearing, but curiously did not show up. She was then subpoenaed by the Subcommittee to attend on a second day, but as she arrived outside the building, she was ordered by a superior in the military to “stay in the van and go back to the Pentagon.” The detail that did not appear in the documentary, but perhaps sums up the challenges of ending rampant sexual assault in the military, is that when Dr. Whitley did finally appear on a third day, Chairman of the Subcommittee John F. Tierney had this to say: “You mentioned that you were on a crusade to get [campaigns against sexual assault] right, but it seems to some--I hope you understand--it might be more like a slow walk than a crusade.”