The people in charge of our military services have been presented with a possible change in how they operate, and they don't like it. I have the feeling I've heard this song before.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is sponsoring a bill to address the endemic problem of sexual assault in the ranks. It would revoke the authority of commanders to dispose these and other criminal allegations as they see fit. Instead, such cases would be handed over to professional military prosecutors.
Commanders would no longer be allowed to bar prosecutions. Nor could they overturn convictions or sentences. Impartial judicial processes would make the determinations. Crimes that are unique to the military, like desertion, and the equivalent of misdemeanors would not be affected.
Why is the change needed? Sexual assault is a problem the military has in abundance. The Defense Department says about one of every three women in the services has been the victim of this crime—about twice the rate in the civilian population. Men are also violated.
An estimated 26,000 sexual assaults took place last year, the Pentagon says, but only 3,374 were reported. There were 302 court-martial trials and 238 convictions—less than 1 percent of all the attacks.
One reason rapes and other sex crimes go unreported is that victims see no point in speaking up. A Pentagon survey found that half of those who kept quiet thought that nothing would be done or that they would suffer some punishment.
Last year, Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, said to Marines at Parris Island, "Why wouldn't female Marines come forward? Because they don't trust us." He complained that in many cases, "We've got an officer that has done something absolutely disgraceful and heinous … and we elect to retain him."
In fact, one of every three of those convicted is allowed to remain in uniform. In May, the guy heading up the Air Force's sexual assault prevention office was arrested for grabbing a woman in a parking lot.
But Amos and the other service chiefs think Gillibrand's solution is worse than the problem. Appearing before her subcommittee in March, a parade of military lawyers rejected the idea.
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Vaughn Ary said commanders need the authority over these cases "to hold everyone in their unit accountable to preserve that good order and discipline to accomplish their missions." Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Harding agreed that preserving the power of commanders is "incredibly important" for "creating a responsive, disciplined force."
Does that line of argument sound familiar? It should. It's exactly what the military has said whenever it has been presented with a new requirement proposed by elected officials dissatisfied with existing policy.
In 1941, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall advised that efforts to bring about racial integration "are fraught with danger to efficiency, discipline or morale." Adm. Chester Nimitz agreed that segregation was essential to "harmony and efficiency aboard ship."
The brass took the same view of admitting women to the service academies. In 1974, Air Force Academy Supt. Lt. Gen. Albert Clark said that "the introduction of female cadets will inevitably erode this vital atmosphere." When the idea of putting women on Navy ships arose, a survey of sailors found most thought it would have "a negative impact on discipline."
We got a reprise of this critique whenever anyone mentioned allowing gays in the military. During the 2010 debate in Congress, more than 1,000 former generals and admirals signed a letter saying the ban was needed to "protect good order, discipline and morale."
But somehow our military managed to survive putting blacks and whites in the same billets. Somehow it became the most powerful fighting force on Earth following the intrusion of females. A year after gays were admitted, Amos said, "I'm very pleased with how this turned out."
The people in charge of the services may have the best of intentions in dealing with sexual assault. But they have a habit of rejecting reasonable changes on the basis of fears that turn out to be unfounded.
The Gillibrand bill aims at curbing sexual assault through impartial treatment of violent predators. That would be good for women—and for the military they serve. She grasps what the Pentagon apparently does not: When you're trying to promote order and discipline, sexual assaults can really get in the way.