There is an iconic scene from one of my favorite movies, A Few Good Men, in which an enraged colonel Jack Nicholson cuts down major Tom Cruise with five fierce words: “You can’t handle the truth.”
On celluloid, that moment was designed to convince us that the military was filled with unforgiving, brutal automatons who demanded absolute obedience from their inferiors. In other words, cheers for Jack were not what the director hoped to elicit.
And yet, that moment was about as authentic as they come, a raw and unvarnished glimpse of something that makes many civilians — especially females — cringe: the culture of the military command. While we all admire the “idea” of a strong military, many of us on the outside looking in are squeamish at the thought of what it takes for that world to exist and survive. On the other hand, those who have lived in the culture are increasingly hesitant to discuss its nature.
That’s because we live in a society where, because of greater options and changing mores, the old standards that defined the military for the past two centuries are being challenged. A recent example is the crusade against “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the civilian world’s ultimately successful attempt to impose a politically biased idea of equality on soldiers, sailors and airmen.
While many nonuniformed Americans are repelled by the idea that citizens should be muzzled about their sexual orientation, those who have lived side-by-side in barracks and on the battlefield know that it’s not as black and white as The New York Times op-ed page would have you believe. There are — or were — legitimate reasons to keep DADT in place, but the voices of those in authority who opposed lifting the ban were drowned out by the voices of civilians crying: You are bigots.
And we are seeing this happen all over again, in the context of sexual assault. At the recent congressional hearings, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand gave an underwhelming performance that was long on emotion and anger and short on pragmatism. As I watched her alternate between pleading and haranguing the assembled “testosterone-driven panel” of high-ranking officers, it occurred to me that she was not really talking to her immediate audience. Gillibrand was doing what so many of her colleagues, male and female, have been doing with a serious and controversial issue: scoring political points.
This is not about Democrats or Republicans, either. It is not a partisan joust between conservatives and liberals. This is about the clash between an evolved civilian world where the word “rape” has become quite elastic and a military culture that makes virtues out of order and obedience.
That’s not to say sexual assault should be accepted in any environment. Rape is rape, and when a woman (or man) is forced to have intercourse against their expressed will, it’s a crime. It is, in fact, the foulest crime short of murder. But the standards that we see employed in the civilian world, where an increasingly sensitized society is willing to define a date gone awry as a felony, don’t adapt well to the military environment.
And that’s what military brass were trying to explain when, faced with Gillibrand’s histrionics, they kept emphasizing the importance of keeping the chain of command intact when investigating allegations of sexual assault as opposed to farming the cases out to an independent prosecutor as her proposal would require.
Even Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, no hardliner or hawk, has come out against the New York senator’s legislation. As he noted to the Senate Budget Committee this week, “I don’t personally believe that you can eliminate the command structure in the military from this process because it is the culture. It is the institution. It’s the people within the institution that have to fix the problem.”
He’s supported in that position by Sen. Carl Levin, who presented his own proposal that would keep the investigations within the chain of command.
Gillibrand and her allies don’t seem to like that idea. She doesn’t trust the people on the inside to take the problem seriously. Given the growing incidence of sexual assault, she has a point. But her solution is not the one that’s going to work, because it is a politically correct Band-aid placed on a gaping wound. A “feel-good” solution, at most.
Many people criticized the optics at the congressional hearing. Apparently, unless you have enough women on any panel, you have essentially convened a Star Chamber.
But optics and visuals shouldn’t have anything to do with the substance of the debate, which is this: depriving the military command of the ability to investigate sexual misconduct among its members will erode the authority they exert over their subordinates. This will have repercussions that transcend the important, but limited, issue of sexual assault.
That’s something we in the civilian world need to realize. Or to put it another way, we can handle that truth.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.