The Best Defense

Rape and the ethics of adultery, or how the military hides its rape problem

By Matt Collins

Best Defense guest commenter

He probably wishes he was back in Afghanistan. Last month, Major General Gary Patton became the new director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, as details of the latest scandal involving sexual assault in the ranks broke. The Air Force has identified 38 women as victims of rape and sexual misconduct at their training facility at Lackland Air Force Base. Two instructors have been convicted, one sentenced to twenty years, and the unit's commander has been relieved.  The investigation continues as the courts consider the latest lawsuit filed by a group of sexual assault victims who allege that the military mishandled their complaints.

The scope of the problem is startling. A 2008 survey by the Government Accountability Office put the rate of sexual assault at 7 percent of women and 2 percent of men. As women make up about 15 percent of the military, most victims are male. Because of underreporting and the stigma attached to the crime, estimates vary widely. Some VA hospitals report as many as 30 percent of their female patients are victims of sexual assault.

Many victims do not come forward for fear of reprisal. Attackers often outrank their victims, making reporting difficult. Some commanders bully victims into keeping quiet about their attacks. In documentaries like Invisible War and In Their Boots: Outside the Wire*, victims have described how they were threatened with spurious court martial charges and had their careers derailed by their chains of command. Lawsuits filed by victims described how they lost their security clearances for seeking mental health treatment, damaging the only advantage many of them have in the toughest veteran job market in decades.

The problem has even tainted the military's mental health system. A recent CNN investigation revealed that while women are make up 16 percent of the Army, they account for 24 percent of the mental health discharges, with similar disparities for the other services. The report went on to profile sexual assault victims from all four services who claimed to have been discharged after seeking assistance after their attacks.

The military's legal system has twisted itself in knots trying to deal with problem. In 2008, the GAO reported that only 17 percent of sexual assault cases were prosecuted.  Commanders and prosecutors responded by increasing the rate of prosecution by 70 percent in 2009.

One troubling tact commanders have taken is to pursue adultery charges in rape cases.  For the victims, this means that their attackers will get off on a misdemeanor conviction and do not have to register as sex offenders. More disturbingly, perhaps, is the tremendous pressure for the accused to plead guilty to adultery to avoid rape charges.  There is a body of academic work in both Game Theory and the Reid Technique, a commonly used interrogation method, which suggests that innocent people will confess to crimes they did not commit to avoid more serious charges. In either case, commanders can plausibly claim that their units do not have a rape problem. In a twist reminiscent of the Iranian justice system, commanders have even threatened victims with adultery charges.

An adversarial justice system involves winners and losers. Prosecuting alleged rapes as adultery produces neither. Rape victims are denied the satisfaction of the military acknowledging the crime and properly punishing the attacker. Those falsely accused are forced to plead guilty and deal with the shame of being drummed out of the military with a dishonorable discharge. The only winners in these cases are the careers of the commanders involved. There is little resembling justice for anyone.

To his credit, the Secretary of Defense has instituted much needed reforms on how the military handles rape cases. In a tacit acknowledgement of mid-level commanders' inclination to bury rape investigations for career purposes, all such cases are now handled by more senior commanders already eligible for retirement.

Still, there is more that could be done to reform the military's handling of sexual assault. Perhaps General Patton should look into commanders' use of adultery charges in rape cases. If he does not, perhaps Congress could do it for him.

Matthew Collins spent ten years as a Marine Intelligence Officer, including a tour as a company executive officer on Marine Corps Base Quantico. He is now an MBA student at St Louis University. If you are a service member who has been the victim of sexual assault, confidential help is available through the DOD Safe Helpline at 877 995 5247.

*Correction, Aug. 29, 2012: The original version of this post misspelled the name of In Their Boots: Outside the Wire.


The Best Defense

What would realistic ethical training be like? And why don't we have it?

 While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on November 3, 2011.

There's a terrific, thoughtful piece on the need for realistic ethical training in the November issue of Army magazine. It is by Kevin Bell, who was an Army captain and left to do graduate work in Middle Eastern studies at Princeton.

Why, Bell wonders, do we have tough and realistic combat training, but not equally realistic ethical training? Here is what I think the nut of the piece is:

As a profession we have to adjust our training so that we know what to do when rage tells us that it's OK to go beyond the limits of tactical questioning with a captive. We can't stop there, though. We need to talk to our peers and subordinates about the real challenges of ethical leadership in a way that acknowledges how our job culture can warp our understanding of morality.

There is a lot more to quote in the article. First, he says, let's stop pretending that there is a huge distance between someone who tortures and someone who is a good officer. Also, don't make people think through the ethical distinctions for the first time when they are seized with rage and grief over the death of a comrade. But, he continues, "lack of realism in detainee training is only the most obvious problem."  

Don't just preach to small unit leaders, he says. Give them concrete support that enables them to operationalize ethical standards. "It isn't enough to know the rules if we are still unsure in a time of weakness what to do with detainees who might have tactically useful information."

Bell's only misstep, I think, is his last sentence, about how if these changes are made, "The next generation of junior leaders will thank us." This rings false to me. Actually, if he is right -- and I believe he is -- I doubt they will thank anybody, they will just assume this is the right way to do things. (As a writer, I think people often go on a little too far in their conclusions.)

But that's a minor gripe. It is an article worth reading, and Army magazine is to be commended for running it. I hereby award it The Best Defense prize for best defense commentary of the month.