Typically, when a tough situation exists, you’ll hear someone utter the phrase “It’ll take an act of Congress to straighten that mess out.” The occurrence of sexual assaults in the military has been the hot topic “mess” in the media lately. In an organization with millions of members, it would be naïve to think that sexual harassment, sexual assaults and rape do not occur in the military; they do.
While this article is not an attempt to say that incidences of these acts occur more or less than in the civilian world, several acts of Congress have been passed to address the issue. The “acts of Congress” over the past year were designed, among other things, to make reporting these crimes an easier process for the victims and the prosecution of those accused more likely.
Yet, even within that hallowed institution, there’s debate about what’s the best way to accomplish the same goal. In the Senate, a fight ensued two weeks ago over a bill that would have removed the power to investigate and prosecute sexual assaults from the chain of command, turning it over to an impartial panel of military prosecutors to ensure fairness. Supporters of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, believed impartiality would increase the likelihood of sexual assault cases being prosecuted on the merits of the evidence and not political posturing or the biases of the commanding officers. Those who opposed the bill argued that it would have undermined discipline, removed accountability and resulted in fewer prosecutions. The bill lacked enough votes to break a filibuster led by Senator Claire McCaskill, who had a competing bill that passed the same week.
The news on Monday that sexual assault charges had been dropped against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair brought the fight back into the limelight. USA Today ran a story that the judge had temporarily suspended Sinclair’s court-martial after learning that the commanding officer had rejected a plea deal on lesser charges. Both those who were for, as well as those who were against such decisions being removed from the chain of command, hailed the Sinclair case as support for their argument.
Critics of the current system pointed out that, in an effort to appear tough on sexual assaults, the commander politicized the case by pushing for prosecution on the most serious of charges in spite of reservations expressed by the original prosecutor, who eventually resigned from the case. In an editorial published by the New York Times, Sen. Gillibrand wrote “We need every case to move forward based solely on the evidence and judged solely on the merits, not political pressure or other nonlegal considerations.”
On the other end of the scale, Sen. McCaskill argued that had it not been for the commander, the case would never have been prosecuted, proof that the decision to prosecute should remain within the chain of command.
Other “acts of Congress” in the fight against military rapes and sexual assaults include reforms passed last December that removed the statute of limitations on reporting cases, criminalized retaliation against victims who report rape or sexual assault, and mandated the dishonorable discharge or dismissal of anyone convicted of rape or sexual assault. Earlier this month, Congress also passed a bill sponsored by Senator McCaskill that removed the “good soldier” defense in rape and assault cases, among other provisions. The bill awaits passage in the House.
So, the question remains, can morality be legislated? Sexual assault and rape are crimes in the civilian world…Should it take an act of Congress to make men (and yes, sometimes women) refrain from forcing themselves on another individual while serving in the military?
Perpetrators of these types of acts should be punished to the fullest extent of the law, whether that be through the Uniform Code of Military Justice or a civilian court.