By Robert Egnell
Best Defense guest columnist
like me, are a soldier, this is going to be a painful read.
issue of sexual assaults within the military took center stage in the wake of a
Pentagon announcement that the number of reported cases of sexual assault had
increased by 46 percent during the last fiscal year -- a number that was
already appallingly high. After many heated Senate debates, during the holidays
President Obama finally signed the sweeping National Defense Authorization Act,
which included a number of new sexual assault provisions. The president also
went further by directing military leaders to review their efforts to prevent
and respond to these crimes. Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, are to report back to President Obama on December 1, 2014. The
directive came with a stern warning: "If I do not see the kind of progress I expect, then we will
consider additional reforms that may be required to eliminate this crime from
our military ranks and protect our brave service members who stand guard for us
every day at home and around the world."
begs the question, what is "the kind of progress" he expects, and what will it
actually take to deal with this problem?
both lawmakers and ranking officers have been taking the problem very
seriously. In 2012, Gen. Martin Dempsey spoke on behalf of the Joint Chiefs and
argued that "We realize the crime of
sexual assault erodes the very fabric of our profession." The problem is that
the compromise provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act, while
clearly taking some important steps in the right direction, do not come close
to addressing the causes of sexual assault in the armed forces. Instead, the debate
has circled around the symptoms and consequences of these crimes rather than
their root causes. To effectively deal with the problem, we must ask why
soldiers and officers are raping, attacking, and harassing their colleagues,
their brothers and sisters in arms?
sexual assault truly were considered an issue that erodes the very fabric of
the profession, we should expect a profound and immediate response from within
the military organization. Instead, the response has taken the meager form of awareness training programs and improvements in the Department of Defense response systems
to these issues, accompanied by a staunch resistance to accept legal changes
that would reform the military justice structure.
the organization does not, in fact, see sexual assault as an attack on the
fabric of the profession? What if the very fabric of the organization is
instead the cause of the prevalence of sexual assaults in the military? The chief
of staff of the Army, Gen. Raymond Odierno, and many others have stressed the
need for cultural change within the organization in order to deal with the
problem of sexual assaults. Very few, however, have dared to specify what the
problem with the military culture is and how it needs to change. This is where
the pain comes in.
is a reason why military culture is not seriously challenged -- it is perceived
to be functional, even necessary, for effectiveness on the battlefield. The
core task of military organizations is to fight and win the nation's wars. A
certain type of unit cohesion and military mindset is therefore considered
necessary in order to perform this task effectively. Consequently, young men
and women are recruited and trained into a mindset that matches the
preconceived notion of what constitutes a good soldier and a close-knit and
loyal fighting unit. There is a very well established system for this process.
Through shared physical hardship, "benign abuse" by drill sergeants, hazing by
peers, and traditionally also a rather substantial amount of sexist and
homophobic verbal abuse, soldiers are socialized into good warriors and
fighting buddies. The ideal end result is a well-oiled, loyal, and highly
aggressive fighting unit, that also often bears the characteristics of "hyper masculinity"
-- stressing the stereotypes of physical strength, courage when facing physical
threats, aggression, and sexuality. No one should therefore be surprised that
military life also includes strip clubs, pornography, and binge drinking --
most often seen as "necessary" but unofficial forms of male bonding for unit
when the core task of an organization is the effective application of organized
violence, this violence must also be carefully constrained. Soldiers or units
that direct their violence and aggression -- sexual or not -- against their
peers, subordinates, or commanding officers, or that kill and rape the local
population, become strategic liabilities -- especially in an environment of
constant and global media coverage informed by anyone with a mobile phone.
warrior ideal, in its current exaggerated hyper-masculine form, has a very dark
side of the same coin -- it fails to constrain violence to a large enough
extent. The failure to achieve long-term success in Afghanistan and Iraq can
certainly not be blamed solely on military culture, but it is at the same time
clear that the epic disasters ranging from an overly aggressive stance of many
infantry units in the early stages of the reconstruction phase in Iraq, to
abuse in Abu Ghraib, the massacre in Haditha, and Quran burning and body urination incidents in
Afghanistan, have all had profound strategic consequences that almost no amount
of positive work could salvage.
official defense in most high-publicity cases is that these events are never
the sign of a fundamental cultural problem, but the isolated acts of a few
rotten eggs in an otherwise perfect organization. "Any big organization has
them..." The exact same analysis is made with reference to sexual assault. Again,
the response is to deter these rotten eggs through new legal procedures, by
teaching commanders to recognize sexual assault when they see it, and by making
it easier for victims of assault to report these crimes.
to resolve the problem of sexual assault in the armed forces, military
organizations need to deal with the root of the problem -- the military culture
it has created and promoted in the first place. That means going back to the
drawing board regarding its view of the ideal soldier, what type of
characteristics should be sought after by recruiters, what type of values should
be emphasized in soldier and officer training, the way we can achieve unit
cohesion, and what we reward as appropriate or exceptional behavior.
Researchers argue that it is perfectly possible for humans to distinguish
between different moral boundaries. Thus, creating effective killers (which we
simply cannot shy away from) does not necessarily lead to unintended byproducts
of sexual assaults and war crimes. We can both retain competence within the
core task of the military, while at the same time changing the values and
attitudes towards women, sexual violence, and restraint on the battlefield.
only would such fundamental changes through bottom-up approaches stand a chance
of changing the culture that is connected to the appalling levels of sexual
abuse in the military, it may also produce more effective fighting units that
will stand a better chance of achieving the complex tasks (beyond the massive
use of force) that military organizations are often asked to perform in
Robert Egnell is a visiting professor and director of teaching in the Security
Studies Program at Georgetown University, as well as the senior faculty advisor
for the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. He is the author
Military Effectiveness and Organizational Change: The Swedish Model (Palgrave,
forthcoming 2014) and co-author with David Ucko of Counterinsurgency in Crisis: Britain and the
Challenges of Modern Warfare (Columbia 2013). He is also an officer in the
Swedish Army Reserves.