WASHINGTON Trench warfare is more associated with the antique horrors of the Somme than with modern tactical defense. But the nation’s military leaders showed this week that they understood the ancient principles of entrenchment as they dug into a defensive position beneath the bright lights and microphones of Senate Hearing Room 216.
There was something unseemly about watching the military leaders of the free world, stars and eagles glittering on overwhelmingly male shoulders, as they hunkered down and took fire from a 59-year-old former Missouri auditor who had them pinned to a ridiculous piece of ground to defend, and knew it.
“I’m somewhat taken aback,” Sen. Clare McCaskill, D-Mo., said at one point. “You all seem to be defending the status quo, and the status quo is not acceptable.”
When she asked whether the men wearing the stars had consulted with their colleagues from our allies – Germany, Australia, the U.K. – about how it had worked when those military forces had transferred responsibility for prosecuting sexual assault cases from unit commanders to professional prosecutors, all they could say was, in effect, “Hey, thanks, good idea.”
That struck McCaskill’s conservative Republican Missouri colleague, Roy Blunt, as a bridge too far.
That’s “a terrible answer,” he scolded them.
Several senators – guess what, all male – fell all over themselves to provide cover. The committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., seemed to be gently encouraging the military witnesses in their contention that the military chain of command could not survive having responsibility for these cases stripped away.
And then there was Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who astonishingly seemed to be saying “boys will be boys” as he urged a go-slow approach to reforms: “The young folks coming in to each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22 or 23. Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur. So we’ve got to be very careful how we address it on our side.”
Yeah, let’s be careful not to interfere with hormones, which have as much to do with rape and a culture of mistreatment of women as eating yogurt has to do with getting appendicitis.
And we wonder why it has taken until now for this issue to get the attention it deserves in the Senate?
When Chairman Levin and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the committee’s top Republican, are sounding like essentially the same person, it underscores who is driving this issue.
It was 92 minutes into the hearing before a woman – McCaskill – got to ask a question, and the hearing’s tone changed instantly.
McCaskill and the other women of the committee are hardly a political monolith on most issues. Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand, N.Y., Kay Hagan, N.C., Jeanne Shaheen, N.H., and Mazie Hirono, Hawaii, and Republicans Kelly Ayotte, N.H., and Deb Fischer, Neb., are, geographically and ideologically, all over the map.
But without their presence on this committee, it’s hard to imagine that this issue would have been surfaced as effectively as it has been.
As for the collection of brass in the hearing room, the argument that changing the command structure to more effectively prosecute sexual assault would destroy “unit cohesion” and the military way of doing things seems ridiculous on its face. How in the world can you have “good order and discipline” in your unit when soldiers who have been raped are being pressured not to come forward?
But it might have a little more credence if previous generations of leaders had not been equally forceful defending other pieces of indefensible ground.
Ending “don’t ask don’t tell” would destroy military discipline, we were told. The same with giving women any meaningful role in the military. The same with racially integrating military units.
Military command structure, it turns out, survived all of those feared assaults just fine.
It’s time for the generals and admirals to stand up, own up to the unconscionable abuses the current system has produced and condoned, take the necessary steps to change the culture, and end the nightmare of military sexual abuse.
And it’s time for the vestigial old men of Congress to stop dithering about hormones and the sanctity of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and get out in front of this inevitable and necessary change.
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