Generals say the darndest things.
Especially when it comes to issues of gender and sexual assault.
Witness the comments of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh at a hearing this week before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Questioned about the increasing number of sexual assault cases in the military, Welsh deftly shifted the blame elsewhere. To society in general. Even worse — although I would grant that he did not consciously intend it this way — to the victims.
Listen to Welsh in his own words, quoted at length to provide the full context:
“It’s a big problem for our nation. It may be as big or bigger elsewhere. . . . Roughly 20 percent of the young women who come into the Department of Defense and the Air Force report that they were sexually assaulted in some way before they came into the military. So they come in from a society where this occurs. Some of it is the hook-up mentality of junior high, even, and high school students now. . . . The same demographic group moves into the military.
“We have got to change the culture once they arrive. The way they behave, the way they treat each other cannot be outside the bounds of what we consider inclusive and respectful.”
The hook-up mentality? Talk about not getting it. General, the hook-up culture is lamentable but consensual. Sexual assault is, by definition, not consensual.
So please explain, exactly, how one leads to the other. Indeed, please explain, exactly, how pinning the increase in sexual assaults on a willingness to engage in casual sex is not classic blame-the-slutty-victim thinking dressed up in 21st-century lingo. She hooked up, so she asked for it? She was already a victim when she enlisted?
“It’s beyond belief that those statements were just uttered,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “This is a violent act; this is not a date gone badly.”
Welsh’s comments got lost in the bigger news about the Air Force officer in charge of sexual assault prevention programs being arrested for sexual battery and an explosion in the estimated number of service members who were targets of “unwanted sexual contact,” up 35 percent from two years ago.
But they are worth highlighting because they illustrate the military’s continuing difficulty in dealing with the problem of sexual assault in its ranks. Welsh seems earnest enough — he spoke with passion at the hearing about how the military could lead the way in addressing such crimes, and he hosted a screening of “The Invisible War,” the documentary on sexual assault in the military, for commanders last year. Yet he seemed clueless about how his comments could be perceived.
Just hours after Welsh’s remarks, President Obama was assuring military victims of sexual assault, “I’ve got their backs. I will support them.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was decrying sexual assault as “one of the most serious challenges facing this department,” adding that the military “may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission and to recruit and retain the good people we need.”
And so, the secretary continued, “All of our leaders at every level in this institution will be held accountable for preventing and responding to sexual assault in their ranks and under their commands.”
Accountability, great. And yet, not a peep from the secretary’s office — no less the White House — about Welsh’s remarks. Does the secretary, does the president, believe that hook-up culture is to blame?
Welsh’s broader point, about the military vs. the culture at large, is similarly misplaced. The military has a particularly egregious set of problems — in the frequency of assaults, in victims’ fear of coming forward and in the track record of how abuse complaints are handled.
The Defense Department’s own study found that, though 26,000 people said they were assaulted last year, only 3,374 complaints were filed, in large part due to fears about the consequences of coming forward. And those fears were justified: In the survey just released, nearly two-thirds of those filing complaints reported suffering retaliation, either professionally or socially.
“That’s a huge barrier for reporting,” said Army Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
Something needs to change — starting with attitudes, and understanding, at the top.