Hidden Battlefield at Sea

I recently blogged about the issue of further integrating women into the armed services, specifically by allowing them into combat roles and requiring women to register with Selective Service.

Putting young men and young women together in a stressful environment is, of course, always going to result in sex and all the difficult issues that arise from it. Recently, sexual assault within the ranks of the military has been getting increasing scrutiny – as a recent documentary and Foreign Policy article make clear:

The 2010 Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military indicates that 3,158 cases were officially reported. A Department of Defense survey of active duty members revealed that only 13.5 percent of sexual assaults within the services were reported. The Pentagon itself estimates that more than 19,000 incidents of sexual assault actually occurred in 2010, not the 3,158 officially reported.

I only have my own narrow perspective on this issue, having served on ships with female officers and crew. Looking through my own soda-straw, that statistic surprises me – our sexual assault training was clear that victims are encouraged to come forward and have a variety of options, both in and out of the chain of command, for reporting it. I never saw even a whiff of hesitation to aggressively deal with those crimes among Captains, XOs and Command Master Chiefs.  Again, that’s just one JOs view of two ships and a dozen or so senior-leaders – the problem could definitely still be in other commands, and the climate might be very different in other services and venues.

With that said, I take issue with the proposed solution to the problem:

Through the drama of the survivors of rape and sexual assault, The Invisible War offers a possible solution to the epidemic-a change to the military justice system in how cases of rape and sexual assault are investigated, prosecuted and punished. The call is to take them out of the survivor’s chain of command. Canada and the United Kingdom along with most of our NATO allies, no longer allow military commanders to determine the prosecution of sexual assault cases.

While I firmly believe that victims should be able to REPORT sexual assault outside their chain of command (as they currently can), the crime should not be treated any differently from a trial standpoint than any other crime. I say that for a couple of reasons-

First and foremost, it fundamentally undermines leadership – it tells every Commanding Officer that “you can’t be trusted” to prosecute these crimes fairly. One of my biggest complaints about the current state of Navy leadership is a migration of responsibility up the chain of command – a Captain of a ship can be trusted with a nuclear bomb or tomahawk missile, but not with setting their own training schedule, or, with this change, prosecuting crimes when they happen.

Second, I think that it’s possible it wouldn’t have the intended effect of increasing assault reporting. Military commands are usually tight-knit places. I imagine that air wings and infantry brigades are similar to a ship – the goal of most people in the command is to do your job and go home, which usually means keeping people “outside the unit” away as much as possible.  No ship is happy when outside inspectors come on board and start throwing stuff around – that’s not to say we shouldn’t have inspectors, but simply a recognition of the fact that no one likes it when they do.

If EVERY time a sexual assault is reported, it AUTOMATICALLY brings an army of outside prosecutors and investigators down on the ship, there’s a greater potential for backlash against the victim who reported it. Where the CO is in the loop, the same army of investigators is now coming on the ship at his request and instigation and it’s a little easier to swallow for the crew. When “they’re investigating,” people tend to circle the wagons – when “we’re investigating”, there’s not the same gut-reaction.

I’m not saying that the policy shouldn’t be changed because it will make crews feel better about the investigation, or because the investigation shouldn’t happen – but rather that the possibility of backlash against the victim might be lower.

Lastly, I just don’t think that sexual assault should be treated as anything other than what it is a – a crime. To take it “outside the chain of command” further stigmatizes it- for both assaulter AND assaulted – as something shameful or “unnatural.” Commanding Officers and higher authorities should be empowered to prosecute the offenders in exactly the same way as they do other crimes. Commanding Officers and higher authorities that FAIL to prosecute sexual (or any other) crime, should be held accountable for that failure.

All of that, of course, goes out the window if the attacker IS the Commanding Officer, but that’s no different than if the CO punched someone or is caught embezzling money. As I say above, REPORTING of these crimes doesn’t need take place entirely within the chain of command – because of the high-incidence of attacks BY people in the chain of command, victims should be allowed and ENCOURAGED to report the crime to a supervisor at any level, as well as the Inspector General, their elected representatives, or NCIS. If someone in the chain of command is IMPLICATED in the crime, they clearly they would be taken out of the decision making process – but after the crime is reported, the actual prosecution should be no different than for any other crime.


About thinklikeafox

I'm a Naval Officer living in Southern California. I hope to be attending law school in the next year or two, and I started writing this blog out of a desire to improve my writing and critical thinking skills after a couple years outside of academia.
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