So, the President gave the commencement address at the US Naval Academy today, and I was pretty excited when I heard that he'd addressed sexual assault in the military during the address. And then I read the transcript. Toward the end of the speech came this:
Our military remains the most trusted institution in America. When others have shirked their responsibilities, our Armed Forces have met every mission we've given them. When others have been distracted by petty arguments, our men and women in uniform come together as one American team.Listen, I am grateful that the President of the United States acknowledged that there is a sexual assault problem in the US military. But I am deeply unhappy that the way he addressed it was to say that it weakens the military and threatens the country's security, without any acknowledgment of the victims of sex crimes at all. How about don't sexually assault people because it's fucking wrong, because it hurts the people who are sexually assaulted.
And yet, we must acknowledge that even here, even in our military, we've seen how the misconduct of some can have effects that ripple far and wide. In our digital age, a single image from the battlefield of troops falling short of their standards can go viral and endanger our forces and undermine our efforts to achieve security and peace. Likewise, those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that make our military strong. That's why we have to be determined to stop these crimes, because they've got no place in the greatest military on Earth.
This is the same problem with the rhetoric around giving women et. al. reproductive choices because it's good for their families and for the economy. There's always got to be some bigger, more important reason—that is, a compelling reason that affects men—to provide healthcare and safety and decency for women. (Not that the only victims of military sexual assault are women.) Treating women decently is never reason enough on its own to do it.
On its own, this passage was bad. But it was surrounded by a lot—a lot—of axiomatic honor talk. Preceding the above passage:
Today, each of you can take enormous pride, for you've met the mission of this Academy. You've proven yourselves morally, living a concept of honor and integrity—and this includes treating one another with respect and recognizing the strength of every member of your team.And following it:
I'm absolutely confident that you will uphold the highest of standards, and that your courage and honor and your commitment will see us through, and that you will always prove yourselves worthy of the trust our nation is placing in you today.As but two examples. It's a strange message indeed to implore people to act ethically when you bookend that request with unqualified reassurances that they are already perfect models of unassailable integrity.
But the worst part of all was this, from the President's opening statements:
To the entire Brigade of Midshipmen—you embody the highest virtues of this venerable institution. And yet, I know that some of you at times have enjoyed yourselves at other local institutions like McGarvey's and Armadillo's. (Applause.) But today is a day of celebration—and also forgiveness. And so, in keeping with tradition, I declare all midshipmen on restriction for minor conduct offenses are hereby absolved. (Laughter and applause.) As always, Admiral Miller gets to decide what's "minor." (Laughter.) Some of these guys are laughing a little nervously about that. (Laughter.)Ha ha boys will be boys, amirite? Silly scamps.
The US military has a sexual violence problem. Many incidences of sexual violence at military academies in particular follow cadets "enjoying themselves" at bars, or at alcohol-fueled parties. Many of the servicemembers victimized by sexual violence are discredited or dismissed if they have been drinking.
These "jokes" aren't happening in a void. They're happening in the center of an institution where sexual assault is not being taken seriously, where the very crimes the President is condemning are often written off as "minor infractions," if they're even addressed at all.
The US military has a sexual violence problem, and its Commander-in-Chief isn't helping.