ANY ALTERATION to the military’s time-honored — but often controversial — policy of giving commanding officers control of military justice would be a major change. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is skeptical, and many seasoned military officers are opposed. But if there were ever an issue that would justify removing prosecutorial discretion from commanding officers and giving it to independent prosecutors, it’s sexual assault, a problem that the military has a long, sordid history of downplaying or ignoring. Congress should follow the lead of many of its women senators and representatives and unite behind a bill to reform sexual assault prosecutions.
The problem of sexual assault is bigger than even many close observers of the problem believed. The Pentagon now estimates that 26,000 women in the armed forces were assaulted last year. The recent allegation that a US Military Academy sergeant filmed at least 12 female cadets while they were taking showers sparked outrage, especially coming after the case last month in which an Air Force officer in charge of sexual assault prevention was accused of getting drunk and sexually assaulting a woman. He was the second officer involved in sexual assault prevention to be accused of sexual assault.
Obviously, sexual assault prevention programs need to be examined. The Pentagon can learn from outside experts how to draw up plans, adopt new training practices, and hire specialists to create an atmosphere in which no misconduct is tolerated. The military must also examine a culture that too often denigrates the role of women. The recent decision to end the ban on women in combat is an important step toward equality. But Hagel and other leaders must still be attentive to the need for more recruitment and promotion of women. An environment that tolerates heavy drinking as a way to blow off steam may be a problem as well.
But the extent to which incidents of rape and abuse have been tolerated within the ranks casts critical light on the military justice system. Reform proposals in the House and Senate would remove a supervising officer’s ability to change or dismiss court-martial convictions in cases involving sexual misconduct; too often, superior officers have overruled jury verdicts in the name of unit cohesion, the traditional justification for overriding infractions of the military code. In theory, commanders have this authority because the complicated pressures of the battlefield don’t always lend themselves to letter-of-the-law rulings. But it’s hard to see how, in cases of sexual assault, commanders can have a better perspective than prosecutors or jurors who are themselves in the military.
The debate in Congress is likely to pit defenders of military tradition against those who seek a new, improved culture that serves to limit the number of sexual crimes. The choice should be obvious.