On sexual assault in the military, the service chiefs look oblivious


U.S. military leaders, including all six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee (Win McNamee/Getty Images).

This should come as little surprise: The most powerful leaders in the military are apparently worried about giving up power for military commanders.

On Tuesday, the service chiefs testified before Congress about the disturbing number of sexual assault cases that are occurring in the military. Yet they expressed strong reservations, reports the Post's Craig Whitlock, about one reform lawmakers seek: a change to the military justice system. The proposed change, which is included in a bill introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), would give uniformed prosecutors—rather than commanders—the authority to handle criminal investigations into sexual-assault cases and other crimes.

(The latest updates from sex assault hearing)

In their resistance to the proposal, the service chiefs come off as more concerned about preserving military command structures than assuring victims of sexual assault that every measure will be taken to correct the problem. Gen. James F. Amos, who leads the Marine Corps, writes that "victims need to know that their commander holds offenders accountable, not some unknown third-party prosecutor.”

The problem, of course, is that commanders have not always held offenders accountable. The number of active-duty military personnel who have experienced "unwanted sexual contact" has grown by 35 percent over the past two years, on top of already disturbingly high numbers. And some commanders have chosen to overturn convictions in high-profile cases.

Is a victim really supposed to think "some unknown third-party prosecutor" might not be more impartial? Isn't it possible (if not probable, given the gender and power imbalance of military leadership and sexual assault) that commanders could have closer allegiances to the perpetrators than to the victims? Isn't the potential for bias here really obvious?

Meanwhile, Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, wrote in a letter in advance of the hearing that "sexual assault remains an unacceptable problem for our military and society," but that the military cannot "simply ‘prosecute’ our way out of this problem. At its heart, sexual assault is a discipline issue that requires a culture change.”

No, it is not. At its heart, sexual assault is a crime, one that should involve impartial prosecutors. Legal changes are not a silver bullet, as President Obama has said, and culture change is also critically needed to help prevent sexual assault from happening in the first place. But culture change is glacially slow, particularly in an institution as vast and steeped in tradition as the military—and it doesn't do much to help those who've already been victimized.

Real leadership here is not about preserving the status quo or worrying about how such a change will undermine commanders' authority. Great leaders will continue to inspire the faith of their troops through doing the right thing, treating people fairly and developing those around them, whatever changes to the military justice system are made. Real leadership is about making whatever changes are necessary, even if it means losing out on power, to solve a problem that has become a cancer within the ranks.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Solving the sexual-assault crisis in the military

Combatting sexual assault in the military

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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