Savages, Sexual Predators, and Their Defenders: How the Washington Establishment Really Views the Military

Note: The opinions stated are my own and in no way represent the policy or opinion of the United States Marine Corps or the Armed Forces of the United States.

As our military moves into its second decade of fighting overseas, some in the media and on Capitol Hill have shamefully managed to both cover up an actual scandal over the death of four Americans in Benghazi and at the same time manufacture a scandal through their outrage over reports of sexual assault in the military.  With barely contained vitriol, editorials, news articles, and political speeches have recently described these reports as an "epidemic."  Top military leaders have been berated and slandered for "failing to understand the problem" and for creating a culture of rape by getting "their buddies" off the hook as a matter of policy.  American servicemen have even been outrageously and insultingly labeled more dangerous to their fellow women-in-arms than the enemy in combat.    

Do sexual assaults occur in the uniformed services?  Absolutely.  Just like they do in every other sphere of the civilian world.  Do they happen in higher proportion?  Absolutely not.  In fact, the numbers prove the opposite.  Yet with no understanding of military life and culture, Washington politicians and journalists have condemned American servicemen as savages and sexual predators without digging into the facts.         

The current controversy over sexual assaults began on May 5, 2013, after an Air Force lieutenant colonel, who happened to be in charge of the Air Force's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program, was charged with groping a woman in a parking lot while drunk.  Two days later, the Pentagon released the results of a survey, which estimated that 26,000 service members had experienced "unwanted sexual contact," a 30-percent increase over the 2010 estimate of 19,600.

Let's start with the Air Force lt. colonel.  First, his behavior, if proven true, was reprehensible and unbecoming of an officer in the U.S. Armed Forces.  He should be court-martialed and discharged from the military immediately.  However, his conduct did not occur in uniform or in the line of duty.  He was drunk in a parking lot in Arlington, not on a base or deployed in a combat zone.  So while horrible, it is no different from any other civilian sexual assault and unrelated to the statistics of sexual assault in the military.  Yes, he was the leader of the Air Force's SAPR office.  Bill Clinton was the head of the Democratic Party, yet the sexual assault accusations against him were not reflective of the Democratic Party as a whole.  Neither were Anthony Weiner's or Eliot Spitzer's sexually deviant behaviors.

With regard to the Pentagon's recent sexual assault survey, there is and should be zero tolerance for sexual assaults in the military, and we must strive to eliminate the crime from the ranks.  But before we condemn the military as a whole, let's put the numbers in perspective.  The survey estimates that 26,000 service members experienced "unwanted sexual contact."  Currently, there are 1.4 million active-duty service members in the United States Military, which means that the survey's estimate of 26,000 equals roughly 2 percent of the United States Military.  The survey further clarifies that of the 26,000 service members, 12,100 were women and 13,900 were men, which means that 6.1 percent of women (out of 200,000 female service members) and 1.2 percent of men (out of 1.2 million) on active duty experienced "unwanted sexual contact."  Compare this number to an estimate by the New York State Coalition against Sexual Assault that 1 out of every 4 women in college has been sexually assaulted.  Where is the outrage and similar condemnation of universities? 

Again, this is not meant to minimize the seriousness of the sexual assaults that do occur in the military or the justice that must be brought against perpetrators.  The question is, why has the Washington establishment been so quick to condemn our servicemen despite its complete lack of understanding of life in the military or in a combat zone?  More importantly, why has every senator, congressman and journalist who has commented on this topic ignored the evidence in the Pentagon's study -- which is clear as day -- that shows that the rate of military sexual assaults is lower than in society generally?  Is it through willful omission, or is it simply overlooked through selection bias? 

Whatever the reason, the result is offensive and unjust to the men and women serving their country honorably during a time of war.  Particularly egregious is the charge that commanding officers have created a culture of sexual assault and rape by overturning rulings by courts martial in sexual assault cases.  Currently, a commanding officer has the power to convene a court martial as well as the authority to overturn that court's decision.  While several cases of sexual assault convictions have been overturned, many more have been forced to trial by commanding officers, despite the prosecution determining that there is insufficient evidence to go to trial. 

Yet Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) are currently preparing legislation to strip this power from commanding officers, unaware that doing so will in fact reduce the number of sexual assault cases brought to trial.  The condescension is shocking -- according to Boxer and Gillibrand, commanders are trusted to wage wars with people's lives but not to rule fairly in a sexual assault case. 

Ironically, the ostensible reason for the legislation -- to address female service members' reluctance to report sexual assaults for fear of retribution -- does not hold water.  The same Pentagon survey that started this controversy also reports increased confidence among female service members about their chain of command's willingness to address sexual assault charges.  Seventy percent of women (up 5 percent from 2010 and 11 percent from 2006) report feeling free to report sexual assaults to their commanding officer without fear of retribution, 88 percent of women say that their command makes clear that sexual assault has no place in the work environment, and 98 percent report that their unit received Sexual Assault Prevention and Response training in the last 12 months.  While the Pentagon should continue to push for 100 percent, these numbers hardly indicate an environment of fear and retribution when it comes to reporting sexual offenses.

The sad reality is that the problem of sexual assaults in the military is a consequence of the broader and far more disturbing trend of sexual assaults within society.  The Pentagon's study noted that 30 percent of women experienced sexual assault prior to entering the military, compared to the 6 percent within it.  Yet Senator Gillibrand and dozens of liberal commentators excoriated Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh for stating this exact point.  But in the end, no matter how many rules are placed on service members or how much training they receive, the Armed Forces will always reflect society's values because its people are drawn from society.  In fact, one of the primary arguments for encouraging diversity in the military is to ensure that it continues to accurately reflect society.  So how can we be surprised that the military suffers the same problems as society generally? 

As Gen. Welsh perhaps inelegantly explained, American society has become overly sexualized to an unprecedented and unhealthy degree.  Sex pervades our culture and politics.  Free contraceptives were a major focal point of the last election.  The "hook-up" culture is endemic on college campuses.  President Obama's campaign even used a video by HBO's Girls star Lena Dunham comparing voting for the first time to losing one's virginity.  American service members are still part of society and influenced by its culture.  They are subject to the darker consequences of it as well.

The military is meant to be a sex-free environment.  General Order #1B in Afghanistan prohibits sexual activity in the combat theater.  But everyone in country knows that consensual sex is pervasive on bases -- the inevitable consequence of putting men and women together in tight confines for months on end.  The same is true in the United States, where military men and women are forbidden from having sex together if they are in the same unit.  But relations happen all the time, because sex without consequences is glorified in our society.  This does not justify the incidence of sexual assault in the military, and it certainly does not place blame on the victims.  The reality is that with a culture of sex comes the darker side of sexual violence -- in the military, in universities, and in American society generally.

Given this overly sexualized environment at home and abroad, commanders have done their best to maintain "good order and discipline" while prosecuting those who commit sexual violence.  Though many in the Washington establishment scoff at the idea, military personnel, especially those in combat units, understand the importance of "good order and discipline" in what they do.  Throwing sexual relationships into the mix makes it very complicated, especially in combat zones.  Take for instance an Army brigade combat team deployed to Iraq in 2007.  An Army physician's study published in 2010 found that out of the 325 women in the brigade, 35 were sent home for "pregnancy-related issues."    

Politicians and journalists should try to understand the environment and challenges commanders face before slandering them in speeches and in print.  The truth is that commanders and military men generally walk on eggshells around women for fear of sexual assault accusations.  The general guidance from the top leadership is that commanders should have a witness any time they interact with a female subordinate.  In practice, women get preferential treatment because leaders are hesitant to assign them any duty that is generally disliked, such as standing post or serving on work details, for fear of retaliation via a sexual assault accusation.  Nor is this an undue fear.  According to the Pentagon study, there were 444 false reports of sexual assaults last year among completed investigations, which represents 20 percent of all investigated sexual assaults. 

To reiterate, none of this is to say that sexual assaults are not a problem in the military.  There must be no tolerance for any service member who commits sexual assault.  Such behavior disgraces everyone in uniform and sullies the high standards of the institution.  But it is not an epidemic.  The military's leadership have acted in good faith to deter and prosecute sexual violence.  They deserve credit for their efforts and encouragement to do more.  They certainly don't deserve the vitriol and condescension that have been slung in their faces, nor does the military as a whole.       

If indeed there is an epidemic of sexual assaults going on across the military, the reason must presumably be that the men who enter the military are sexual predators who cannot be trusted, and/or that the long deployments and stimulation from testosterone-filled combat and training makes them lose control.  Fortunately, the Pentagon's study provides the answer -- the numbers show clearly that the rate of sexual assaults is in fact lower inside the military than outside it, and thus, the speculation and suggestions about the character of our military is not just wrong, but egregiously so.

The real question is why none of the outraged politicians and journalists bothered to look at the facts.  Perhaps because the notion of military men as savages and sexual predators better fits their preconceptions, and they simply needed a reason to show their true feelings towards those in uniform.

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