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Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Want to make the military more effective?: Address the problem of sexual assault

By Robert Egnell Best Defense guest columnist If you, like me, are a soldier, this is going to be a painful read. The 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 ...


By Robert Egnell
Best Defense guest columnist

If you, like me, are a soldier, this is going to be a painful read.

The 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."

This begs the question, what is "the kind of progress" he expects, and what will it actually take to deal with this problem?

Rhetorically, 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?

If 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.

What if 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.

There 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 cohesion.

However, 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Instead, 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.

Not 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 contemporary warfare.

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 of Gender, 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.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1