Four Years Later, Senator Gillibrand Is Still Fighting for Accountability for Military Sexual Assaults

[Content Note: Sexual harassment and abuse.]

Four years ago, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced legislation to enforce meaningful accountability for the epidemic of sexual assault in the U.S. military, by "transferring sex crimes from the watch and authority of military brass and instead funneling such cases to independent military prosecutors."

Here we are, four years later, and there is yet another major incident of widespread sexual harassment/assault against female servicemembers. As I reported last Monday, the U.S. Marine Corps is investigating after a link to a drive containing photos of female Marines "in various states of undress" was posted to a 30k+ member Facebook group. The WaPo reported: "The hard drive contained images, as well as the names and units of the women pictured. Many of the photos were accompanied by derogatory and harassing comments."

Today, Gillibrand grilled Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the latest incident, and she did not hold back, her voice rising with precisely the emotion I want my elected officials to have about this subject.

I have to say, when you say to us, "It's got to be different," that rings hollow. I don't know what you mean when you say that. Why does it have to be different—because you all of a sudden feel that it has to be different? Who has been held accountable?

I very much align myself with Senator Fischer's comments: Who has been held responsible?! Have you actually investigated and found guilty anybody?! If we can't crack Facebook, how are we supposed to be able to confront Russian aggression and cyber-hacking throughout our military?

It is a serious problem, when we have members of our military denigrating female Marines who will give their life to this country, in the way they have, with no response from leadership. I can tell you: Your answers today are unsatisfactory.
Sen. Gillibrand continued, before Gen. Neller had the opportunity to provide more unsatisfactory answers.

GILLIBRAND: I can tell you: Your answers today are unsatisfactory. They do not go far enough. And I would like to know what you intend to do to the commanders who are responsible for good order and discipline. [edit] Where's the accountability for failure?! Who is being held accountable for doing nothing since 2013?! Who? Which commander? I am very concerned that this is part of a culture that is resulting in the high levels of sexual assault.

We know from the FY14 SAPRO report that 60 percent of men and 58 percent of women who experience sexual harassment or gender discrimination in the previous year throughout all the services indicated that a supervisor or unit leader was one of the people engaged in the violations. That is a problem with our command.

So if you're dedicated to fixing the culture of the Marines, and all the services, what do you plan to do to hold commanders responsible who fail to get this done?

NELLER: [long pause] Senator, I understand and share your concern. Um. If I were aware, or any— I would expect that any commander who was aware of someone who has reported any allegation of anything, particularly something as serious as sexual assault, and the chain of command didn't do anything, that that commander would be held accountable.

[long pause] I don't have any statistics for you on that. Um. I can tell you that, of all those individuals who have come forward with allegations of sexual assault, what's happened to individuals that, um, were the charges, uh, ended up with some sort of process and ended up with an adjudication, um, but those are just numbers.

As you clearly and rightfully state, this is a problem with our culture, and... [pause] I'm still in the process— I mean, I— [gives up trying to be circumspect] I don't have a good answer for you. I'm not gonna sit here and duck around this thing. I'm not. I'm responsible. I'm the commandant. I own this. And we are gonna have to— [pause]

You know, I know you've heard it before, but we're gonna have to change how we see ourselves and how we do—how we treat each other. Um. That's a lame answer, but, ma'am, that's all I've—that's the best I can tell ya right now.
Credit to Gen. Neller for at least managing to look like he actually sort of gives a shit about this issue, which is the bare fucking minimum and yet a bar so low most of his predecessors and colleagues haven't been able to meet it.

Perhaps the most (unintentionally) wise thing that Neller said is that the military has to change how they see themselves. They also need to change how they see their critics.

One is virtually deemed traitorous at the mere suggestion that a member of the U.S. military (especially a straight white male member of the U.S. military) is anything less than a paragon of moral virtue. They are warriors, they are heroes, they are patriots, they are the good guys who take on the evil-doers.

That collective reputation is fiercely protected. But its fierce protection abets abuse.

Communities in which members are presumed to be above reproach attract abusers who cynically and deliberately exploit the reflexive presumption of moral virtue their membership affords them. Abusers count on the merest suggestion that they are anything but unassailably upstanding being mischaracterized as a hostile attack on the entire community. They count on the community closing ranks around all but the occasional bad apple they cannot justifiably defend.

The setting apart of the military as inherently honorable is antithetical to effective rape prevention. It discourages self-reflection—what need is there to examine one's own ethics if one has already been declared honorable by one's entire country?—and it attracts predators who know they can operate with immunity under the presumption of honor, and it exhorts gatekeepers to ignore evidence which subverts the idea of inherent honor. Which is why, in sexual assault cases, the chain of command routinely chooses silencing victims in defense of the narrative instead of holding their attackers accountable.

There's too much at stake for men invested in a narrative that confers upon them them an unearned reputation of honor for them to be gatekeepers in cases that are the most immediate evidence that narrative is bullshit. They have a vested interest in maintaining it, at victims' expense.

Pulling sexual assault cases out of the chain of command is an important and critical reform. But it is only a start. Truly getting to the root of the military's rape crisis will require giving up some things I'm not sure the military is willing to let go.

But they must. If this is ever going to change.

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