A military culture on trial

June 6, 2013

Until this week, I agreed that military commanders should be stripped of the power to decide whether to investigate sexual-assault allegations and whether to press criminal charges. I also agreed with proposals to relieve them of the authority to modify convictions or sentences.

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).
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).

Then I heard the testimony of the Chief of Naval Operations before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, as he and other top Pentagon brass faced questions about the sharp rise in reported rapes and sexual assaults in our military.

In arguing that proposed legislation to strip power from military commanders would make rape and assault harder to stop, Adm. Jonathan Greenert presented two simple arguments that resonate with principles of organizational management and effective leadership.

First, he told committee members that by reducing the responsibility and accountability of commanders, the solution would become more elusive. He’s right. The authority to address the problem needs to be as close as possible to the front lines of the problem. Holding military leaders responsible for the solution to sexual assault is the best way to truly change a culture that has allowed it to happen far too freely. Commanders should retain the authority they need to solve the issue, and they should lose their jobs swiftly if they fail.

Greenert also noted, “Preventing and responding to sexual assault is not just a legal issue—it is assuredly a leadership issue—and fundamentally imbedded in what we call 'the charge of command'.” He’s right again. The culture of the military is on trial here, not the legal process. The reason the military’s legal process has not curbed sexual assaults is because the culture has not demanded that it stop the problem. Change the military’s culture and the current legal process will work adequately.

Here’s an educated guess as to what really needs to be addressed in the military culture. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are the manifestation of two pernicious cultural beliefs among some (hopefully, only a few) in today’s military. The first is that physical stature and rank, even if only slight seniority, bring entitlement and privilege. The second is that the emerging role of women in the military is “bad” for our armed forces. You will not find many—if any—assaults that have occurred against someone of higher rank than the perpetrator, and most of the assaults are against women. Both those simple facts tell the tale of current military culture.

If our military leaders will stand up and demand precisely the opposite behavior of those two cultural norms, sexual harassment and sexual assault will stop plaguing the military’s reputation. One cultural norm that is needed: While physical strength is a desirable quality in a soldier, so is respect for fellow soldiers. We need a civil military.

When military leaders demand that every soldier and officer be responsible for protecting others from illegal harassment and assault, and that women in uniform find willing help when they demand protection from unwanted sexual advances, word will spread quickly that any unwelcome word or hand will bring discipline. More serious assault becomes a career-ending move.

When those who face harassment or assault can speak out without fear of retribution, the cultural norms will shift in the right direction and our military’s culture might become a civil place for men and women alike.

The best answer to sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military will not come through legislation. It will come from a cultural shift that moves through the ranks upward. When the great men and women serving in uniform—and the vast majority fit that description—grow weary of a few bad apples ruining their reputations, they will demand that protection be afforded to those who speak out about harassment and assault. And they will actually act to provide that protection themselves if their leaders falter.

The leaders who sat in front of the Senate Armed Services committee this week need to step to the front of the new culture and help expedite that process.

Peter Fretwell is general manager of The Classical Network and coauthor of "Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High-Performance Teams."

Read also:

On sexual assault, the service chiefs look oblivious

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