Military sexual assault is a hot topic these days, thanks to a chorus of brave, outspoken men and women who have forced the issue into public light. Even Congress is getting involved, with extensive hearings on the subject as Congresspeople and Senators discuss how to reform the military justice system to tackle sexual assault and create an environment where people can safely report them. One of the most instrumental fighters for servicemen and women has been Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY, pictured above), who refuses to rest when it comes to advocating for her constituents in uniform.
Unfortunately, she lost a key battle last week: the fight to take prosecutions for rape and sexual assault out of the chain of command and into the hands of military prosecutors. And it didn’t happen along party lines, either. Democrats themselves were divided on how to reform the military to handle sexual assaults, and ultimately decided against Senator Gillibrand’s amendment to restructure sexual assault reporting, investigation and prosecution.
Their compromise, inserted by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), says that if a case is dropped, officials at the next highest level of the chain of command are required to review it. They can choose to reopen it on the basis of their findings. This is substantially different than what Gillibrand proposed, and she’s not happy about it: she’s pledged to introduce a floor amendment in one last try to get her version passed when the bill is taken to the Senate floor for a vote.
What, exactly, is the problem here? Well, Gillibrand and others have clearly articulated the numerous issues with leaving sexual assault prosecution in the hands of the chain of command, namely that the chain of command is not a reliable authority. For one thing, it can put victims in a position where they may need to report their rapes to their rapists, or where their cases will inevitably come before their rapists or those closely allied with them for discussion. The tightknit ranks and tendency to support defendants rather than weighing evidence has resulted in overturning key rape cases among the top brass, which sends a clear message to victims: don’t bother reporting, because your rapist is unlikely to face penalties.
Not only that, but numerous rape victims, both those who have reported and those who have not, have reported fear of reprisals as a strong factor in their decisions surrounding reporting. Military rape victims have reported being slapped with mental health diagnoses and pushed out of the military, for example, rather than being supported in the reporting and prosecution process. Likewise, outspoken advocates in the lower ranks may be punished in other ways, even within the rigid and supposedly egalitarian structure of the military.
By taking the decision out of the hands of commanders and into those of independent prosecutors, Gillibrand wanted to make it more fair, and not just for victims. The accused also deserve a fair investigation and trial. Her proposal, however, sparked a revolt because military officials argued it would make it impossible for commanders to punish sexual offenders in the ranks (evidently they couldn’t…report such crimes to prosecutors and ask them for assistance?). Some Republicans seemed to feel that Gillibrand’s proposal would have removed control from the military, breaking the tradition of allowing the armed services to look after their own.
Yet, that may have been precisely Gillibrand’s point. The extent of the military sexual assault crisis demonstrates that the military is not prepared to protect servicewomen and men from rape in the ranks, and that means something clearly isn’t working. Maybe that something is leaving the ranks to police themselves, rather than pushing for outside authorities who can focus on the overall welfare and safety of servicemembers, rather than the appearance or “group cohesion” of a unit.
Photo credit: personaldemocracy