Assault in the military, or assault on the military?


Philadelphia Daily News

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.

©2013 Philadelphia Daily News

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • Blue-state disgrace

    Immigration is a complex problem. So is the long-term question of how the United States should handle the influx of tens of thousands of children from Central America. Beyond the legal mandates, we owe them basic human decency. On the other hand, to say that they should all simply stay here for good begs big questions about encouraging more children to make this journey, and the rights of all the people abroad who are waiting their turn in line. Unless you believe in open borders, it’s all thorny. What seems right for an individual child can seem wrong systemwide.

  • Moon landing 45 years ago brought us together

    It was, after all, only a boot-crunching dust. You wouldn’t think the sight would affect so many or change so much.

  • After plane horror, Europe must stand up to Putin

    Vladimir Putin has become a global menace.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category