“An American female soldier in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. A culture of privilege and impunity has resulted in few prosecutions, and the systematic isolation of women — and men — who dare report the crimes.” These words are taken from a synopsis of the 2012 documentary film about sexual assaults in the military, The Invisible War, by filmmaker Kirby Dick which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will be shown by some PBS stations. Sexual assault in the military has risen to epidemic proportions, and the insidious mindset that has allowed these crimes to flourish within the ranks reflects a society at large where the powerful are protected from even behaving in moral and ethical ways. The result of an imbalance of power which allows the corruption of the powerful and powerlessness of those on the lower levels and ranks underscores a society which prioritizes the right to humanity of its citizens depending on where on the rank they fall.
The Department of Defense released its annual report on sexual assaults two days after charges for sexual battery were brought against Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski, head of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention program. The defense department announced that nearly 3,400 incidents of sexual assault were reported in 2012, up six percent from 2011. The actual number of unreported sexual assaults is believed to be much higher, and these assaults are escalating yearly. It is believed unreported sexual assaults soared within the ranks last year. A Pentagon report estimated seventy sex crimes are committed daily in the military, up thirty-seven percent from last year.
A pattern has existed for decades. High profile scandals are the tip of the iceberg of this culture of misuse and abuse of power within the military. The Tailhook scandal in which more than 100 U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviation officers were alleged to have sexually assaulted at least 83 women and 7 men at the 35th annual Tailhook Association Symposium at the Las Vegas Hilton in September of 1991 may be the first incident that was widely reported and discussed over a spectrum of media. Another incident, the Aberdeen Proving Ground scandal, in which the army brought charges against 12 commissioned and non-commissioned male officers for sexual assault on female trainees under their command in 1996, also received wide attention. Other reported incidents have reached scandalous proportions, and each time promises are made from top military personnel of a “Zero Tolerance policy.”
These are but two of the scandalous widely reported sexual assault allegations within the military. These crimes take place with regularity. The Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program leaders have a duty to look deeply into reasons this has become an epidemic. Those in charge of the program must make every effort to bring the perpetrators to justice and to end the culture that allows the victims to be blamed. Victims of sexual assault must be offered support and a safe environment when they report what has happened to them, to be allowed to report without fear of retribution or of being shunned by their colleagues and those in charge. The response that too often places the perpetrator’s career above justice must change to a belief put into action that no perpetrator deserves a military career.
Representative Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) stated in a May 12 CNN interview, “I want the military to be a place where women can succeed and thrive the way I was able to.” She called for a new system to replace the Uniform Code of Military Justice when investigating sexual assault cases. Others are stepping up to call for an end to this epidemic through practical measures and efforts to end this culture in which power has been allowed to corrupt.
What is happening in the military is a microcosm of our society at large. Our military is supposed to be a place of discipline, order and high ethical and moral behavior. If we cannot look to our military leaders to step up to end a culture of abuse of power and criminal behavior against women and others who are not high ranking, how do we expect to see a change in our society overall where discipline and order are not necessarily the foundation, and women must struggle for respect, equality and often protection against crime. Our military has a legal, moral and ethical duty to rise and meet this troubling problem head on. We cannot call ourselves a truly civilized society until these crimes against women and all who are not in positions of power end.