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Reforming a Recalcitrant Military

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

In his third State of the Union address, President Obama opened and closed with iconic praise for the military. Yet his script, which hailed military cohesion and loyalty as models for Congress and the country, omitted any mention of women soldiers, even though women constitute nearly 15 percent of all active-duty military. Could this be because the epidemic of military sexual assault was still fresh news in Washington, and the allusion to women in the armed forces would subvert his appeal to military exceptionalism as the model for national exceptionalism?

Six days earlier, on January 18, 2012, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta held a press conference to report on sexual assault in the military and the new reforms being launched by the Department of Defense (DoD).

This public airing of the military's heart of darkness – sexual crime in its ranks – came on the heels of an estimated 19,000 military sexual assaults in the previous year, by DoD calculations.

The sad-faced, droopy-eyed Panetta cited the “moral duty” of the military to keep their members safe, and he called sexual assault an affront to American values – the purported bedrock of military values. (With Obama's address, the military had become the bedrock of values for civilian society.) Like so many institutional leaders undergoing public scrutiny for sexual abuse during their watch, Panetta took the high road: “One sexual assault is one too many.”

The avuncular leader of the most powerful and potentially lethal military in history appeared stricken in exposing rampant military sexual crime and sadism, in contrast with his arrogant predecessors, Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, who resembled stone-faced, callous archbishops and cardinals confronted with clergy sexual abuse under their watch.

Eight years earlier, Rumsfeld, too, declared, “Sexual assault will not be tolerated in the Department of Defense,” and ordered a 90-day review of sexual assault policies. The concluding report reaffirmed the responsibility of the “chain-of-command”to ensure that policies and practices are in place to protect soldiers from sexual assault.

Subsequently, the Defense Authorization Act of 2005 required a plan of action by January 1 of that year. That plan resulted in the creation of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), responsible for establishing a victim advocate program, a sexual assault training within the ranks and up the chain-of-command, and a hotline reporting system. According to experts and victims alike, “the analysis of the issues [was] shallow, and the plans for addressing them [were] limited.” Clearly, it failed to live up to its mission – sexual assault prevention.

Thus has been the profile of DoD reform programs since the 1980s, when the defense department, upon reports of rampant sexual harassment, commissioned studies and declared a zero-tolerance policy – a policy which has yet to result in substantive change. The military modus operandi has been a senescent cycle of scandal, study with recommendations, Congressional hearings and unfulfilled promises of reform.

“Reforms at the Margin” or Reforms at the Core?

In his press conference, Panetta announced a series of reforms of earlier DoD reforms, under two broad categories: protection for victims, and prosecution of perpetrators. For the first time, victims – who have been trapped working alongside their rapists – would have the option to transfer quickly from their units. Henceforth, documentation of the sexual assault would be retained for 50 years to enable victims to apply at any time for Veterans Administration (VA) benefits, including disability. The DoD Sexual Assault Advocacy Program would raise the bar on their training standards to meet national best-practice standards. And the net of advocacy services for military sexual assault victims would be widened to include military spouses and dependents, as well as civilian military contractors, with the guarantee of anonymity.

To redress the scandalously low DoD prosecution record of military rapists (8-10 percent), resources will be allocated for more rigorous training for military investigators, lawyers and judges; an integrated data system is also being put in place. Panetta alluded generally, though vaguely, to better training of officers and commanders (who, one might surmise from his remarks, are in the dark about what to do), so they learn “how to prevent sexual assault.” Prevent, protect and prosecute sums it up, with markedly less emphasis and detail given to prevention.

When asked by the press if these reforms are, in fact, “reforms at the margin,” and, secondly, what he thinks is “the core reason for this problem,” Panetta addressed the latter question. “The fear to report, from peer pressure” and the lack of aggressive and better-trained prosecutors lie at the heart of the problem, he responded. Thus, the solution to preventing military sexual assault was placed squarely on the shoulders of the victims – to do a better job resisting peer pressure and reporting – and on the prosecutors. He squandered a golden opportunity to confront the core – and thorniest – issue of military sexual assault: why male soldiers rape, and why their commanding officers let them get away with it. Prevention starts there.

The press inquired if the problem of sexual assault is worse in the military than in civilian society, but the Secretary of Defense dodged the damning evidence and replied that he didn't know. His illiteracy of readily available data would be unacceptable with any other scandal of this proportion. Comparisons between military and civilian rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment are extant in expert testimony to Congressional committees, science journals such as “Military Medicine,” government reports, articles and books on the subject. Over the past decade, numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies, which were funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs, have cited that the prevalence of military sexual assault of women soldiers is nearly twice that of sexual assault in civilian life.

Screening the New Reforms

Let us review briefly a few sentinel case studies of past military sexual assault to assess whether the new DoD reforms, all of which are good and necessary, actually move the military from the “margins” to the “core” of a problem that corrodes victims, protects most perpetrators and corrupts the defense institution from within.

No Accountability at the Top

One of the most infamous examples of military sexual terrorism is the case of several women soldiers in the early years of the Iraq War who died in their sleep. In 2006, Col. Janis Karpinski revealed that several women soldiers at Camp Victory in Iraq had died from dehydration and heat-related illness. Despite the 120-degree desert heat and little to no air-conditioning, the women stopped drinking liquids after 3 or 4 PM. They did so to avoid using remote, unlit latrines after dark, because they were aware of the high risk of being raped by fellow soldiers. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, senior US military commander in Iraq, ordered a cover-up of this potentially explosive news, directing the reporting surgeon to omit in oral briefs that the deceased soldiers were “women” and to not list dehydration as the cause of death on their death certificates. His attitude was, “'The women asked to be here, so now let them take what comes with the territory.'”

As a brigadier general under Sanchez, Karpinski also shared responsibility for the torture of Abu Ghraib prisoners. An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) investigation found that Sanchez had ordered his troops to “exploit Arab fear of dogs” and authorized other harsh interrogation techniques, including “putting prisoners in stressful positions, using loud music and light control, and changing sleeping patterns.” Karpinski was the highest officer reprimanded and demoted for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, leaving Sanchez untouched by both Abu Ghraib and the covered-up deaths of female soldiers trying to avoid rape. Now retired, Sanchez was recruited by the Democratic Party to run for in 2012 for the seat of retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). He recently dropped his bid for Hutchison's seat.

Command-Centric Military (In)justice

In 2004, the Denver Post undertook a groundbreaking investigation into military response to sex crimes, analyzing Army records of soldiers in Iraq accused of rape and other sex crimes between the years 2003 and 2004. The inquiry uncovered a litany of protections for, and lenient treatment of, sex offenders. Commanders gave verbal reprimands and job-related punishments, such as light fines and extra duty – with no prospect of prison time – “nearly five times as often as criminal charges.” Even when military investigators and prosecutors acknowledged that there was enough evidence to prosecute on sexual assault charges, and recommended it, commanders chose not to proceed. In one illustrative case, a military police officer was dropped in rank and discharged by commanders at his request, even though prosecution evidence had been assembled for one of two rape charges. The Denver Post's investigation also revealed that commanders commonly solicit input from accused soldiers regarding their preferred punishment.

Panetta's primary emphases for military reform did not stress a system of strict and transparent accountability for officers and commanders, within whose ranks sexual harassment and sex crimes happen. Military commanders like Lt. Gen. Sanchez set the moral and legal tone for what's right and what's wrong, what's acceptable and what's not acceptable, what's prosecuted and what's not prosecuted in the chain of command under them. They convey respect or disgust for women. They promote tolerance or intolerance of pornography, sexual harassment and sexual assault by their own example with female soldiers and officers, and by their actions in the face of reported sexual assault.

Nor did Panetta address what Gene Fidell of the National Institute of Military Justice labels a “'command-centric military justice system,' one which invites and protects abuse of power by commanders who cover up sexual abuse. Like the Catholic Church hierarchy, military commanders have chosen, in many, if not most, cases, to handle reported abuse at their own discretion, rather than turning perpetrators over to the criminal justice system. The Dominican priest and canon lawyer Thomas Doyle wrote in his testimony on clergy sexual abuse, “Churches and institutions [read: military] tend to hide and deny internal problems and the more socially unacceptable and potentially damaging the problem, the stronger and more organized the cover-up.” Prosecutors, rather than bishops and military commanders, should make major decisions on crime, in this case, sexual crime.

Congress created the military legal system and has the power to change it; yet, according to Fidell, there has been no major change in the military justice system by Congress since the late 1940s. Dr. Leora Rosen, who exposed an Army panel's cover-up of sexual harassment data, described some Congressionals on the Armed Services Committee as “loath to be too critical of the military.” In fact, she remarked, it's often Congressionals who do not work with the military who are more incensed and proactive about military sexual assault.

Linchpin to Prevention: Behavior of Authority

Officers and commanders are crucial to preventing sexual assault, as many workplace investigations corroborate. A 2003 study of female veterans conducted by the University of Iowa and Iowa City Veterans Affairs Medical Center to identify risk factors for rape in the military found that the “behavior of superiors” was “highly associated with military women's risk of sexual assault during their military service.” Where sexual harassment was tolerated in the military workplace, women soldiers had higher risk of being raped. Women working with superiors who made sexually demeaning comments or who tolerated such behavior were found to have a “nearly four-fold risk of rape in the military.” Likewise, they concluded from their findings, “superior's conduct could also promote a healthy work environment for women.”

The antechamber to military life may be even more crucial for prevention of sexual assault. Basic training sets the tone and tenor of military culture for new enlisted recruits and in officer-training schools and programs. When sexist epithets and misogynist chants are used in drill exercises, and when women are singled out and harassed by drill sergeants, it gives license to male recruits to do likewise, and it seasons the recruits and sets the culture for future military sexual harassment and assault. According to Marjorie Cohn and Kathleen Gilberd,[1] the military deliberately infused military training and manuals with misogynist language and imagery and phallic allusions to weapons in the Vietnam War era as part of an intentional campaign to build battlefield aggression and improve the rate of weapon use.

Reforms at the Core

What follows is a list of recommended reforms and resources on military reform, culled from veterans' advocacy organizations and studies of military sexual assault by government-appointed commissions, researchers, investigative reporters and service providers. All derive from the experience and insights of women soldiers and veterans.

Change the Culture

  • Reframe military messages and ideals which foster sexual assault in basic training and throughout career service. Stop equating “manliness and sexual prowess with proficiency as a warrior and sexual violence with military violence.”[2] Stop framing the reporting of sexual abuse as snitching, disloyalty and weakness. Redefine military loyalty as loyalty to ideals of fairness, gender and racial equality, and tolerance for differences. Disengage from illegal and immoral wars, which engender an environment of brutality and abuse of civilians and fellow soldiers.
  • Train recruits and soldiers in “active bystander” principles and practices now applied at middle- and high-school levels to prevent harassment and bullying.
  • Encourage military families to take initiative, as they have with challenging the injustice of the US pre-emptive war in Iraq, and to publicly oppose the culture of sexual harassment and assault in the military that harms sons and daughters, husbands and wives. Nothing may be more powerful than the support of families to remove the stigma and sense of dishonor that victims of military sexual trauma have experienced and that silences them.

Education, Evaluation, Accountability and Equality

  • Train officers, commanders and drill instructors in respect for and equality of women. Instruct them that rape is sexual torture and a crime that will be prosecuted. Civilian experts on violence against women should approve training materials.
  • Include sexual harassment, not only sexual assault, in training of officers, commanders and drill instructors. Sexual harassment, which is discrimination, creates a crude and corrosive environment in which sexual assault is more likely to occur.
  • Prohibit the use of sexual epithets and sexist language by drill instructors in basic training and by speakers in public military events. Monitor basic training to assure compliance. Punish noncompliance.
  • Maintain the ban on selling pornography in base stores and ban the display of pornography in barracks, particularly public spaces.
  • Identify and punish commanders with high and persistent rates of sexual abuse under their command.
  • Hold commanders up the chain of command accountable for rape and sexual harassment that happens under their authority, with punishment that fits the degree of responsibility. Use disciplinary action with career impact.
  • Acknowledge units and leaders where data and testimony reveal respect for women soldiers.
  • End the ban on military women in combat.
  • Promote and honor women soldiers. The greater respect women are shown by the command, and the greater the presence of women with authority, the less abuse other women will get from their comrades.

Prosecution and Prevention of Sexual Assault

  • Remove the discretion of commanding officers to turn over perpetrators for prosecution.
  • Pass the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act (STOP Act), which provides for this.
  • Do not admit soldiers with backgrounds of domestic or sexual violence. Remove those who have been admitted.
  • Expel men, including officers and commanders, from the military permanently who are found guilty of sexual assault of military or civilian women.
  • Establish a mandatory sex offender list in the military as in civil society.
  • Require and improve evidence collection, including medical examinations, when sexual assault is reported.
  • Assure that military punishment for sexual abuse is comparable to that of the civil justice system.

Protection of Military Sexual Assault Victims

  • Pass the Defense Sexual Trauma Response, Oversight and Good Governance Act ( STRONG Act). Among its main provisions, the legislation would provide victims with the right to legal counsel and to a base transfer, would maintain confidentiality when speaking with victim advocates, and would provide greater training for sexual assault prevention and response at every level of our armed services.

Other Legislative Reforms

The Service Women's Action Network (SWAN) is a human rights organization whose mission is to transform military culture by securing equal opportunity and the freedom to serve in uniform without threat of harassment, discrimination, intimidation or assault. See their list of current legislation that addresses military women's health services, disability, protections from sexual assault, stronger prosecution mechanisms, etcetera.


Resources for Education, Services and Support

Military Rape Crisis Center

Miles Foundation

Service Women's Action Network (SWAN)

Training Active Bystanders

US Military Violence Against Women web site
California State University San Marcos

Veterans for Peace

Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild

National Veterans Legal Services Project

1. Marjorie Cohn and Kathleen Gilberd. (2009) Chapter 6, “Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault,” in “Rules of Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military Dissent.” Sausalito, CA: PoliPointPress.

2. Ibid.

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