Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto again downplayed the sharp rise of reported sexual assaults in the military, even as military leaders agree that sexual assaults are a real problem.
The New York Times reported on November 7 that sexual assault complaints in the military rose “nearly 50 percent increase over the same period a year earlier.” The report noted:
The numbers included sexual assaults by civilians on service members and by service members on civilians. Sexual assault was defined in the report as rape, sodomy and other unwanted sexual contact, including touching of private body parts. It did not include sexual harassment, which is handled by another office in the military.
But Taranto ridiculed the Times report, claiming the Pentagon was “exaggerating the problem of military sexual assault.” Taranto claimed the report should be treated with “skepticism” because it included reports of military members assaulted by civilians and those assaulted before entering the military:
“The numbers included sexual assaults by civilians on service members,” which would not fit the common meaning of sexual assault in the military. “Sexual assault” was defined broadly, to include mere “touching of private body parts” (though not “sexual harassment, which is handled by another office in the military”).
Here's our favorite: “In a twist, the Pentagon found that a substantial number of the reported cases of sexual assault--something less than 10 percent--occurred before the victim entered the military.” That's a hell of a “twist”! By this definition, the military could reduce “sexual assault in the military” by nearly 10% simply by asking recruits if they've ever experienced sexual assault and rejecting anyone who answers in the affirmative.
Figures for “reported” sexual assaults, of course, also include false charges as well as murky cases in which it is impossible to prove either guilt or innocence--which, under American principles of justice, means acquittal is the proper outcome. Assault statistics--and indeed statistics on all crimes except homicide--are unreliable on the other side as well, for not all crimes are reported.
The Gillibrand proposal and the status quo, then, both seem unsatisfactory. As long as politicians (and journalists) persist in exaggerating the prevalence of sexual assault in the military, the Pentagon will follow suit, and prosecutions on false or dubious charges will continue to proliferate. A decent resolution to this problem will remain impossible until the moral panic passes. One can only hope the effectiveness and morale of the U.S. military doesn't suffer too much in the interim.
Taranto later claimed:
“In exaggerating the problem of military sexual assault, the Pentagon is responding to its civilian masters in both the executive branch and Congress. A moral panic is under way, and military officers--who are trained to follow orders and whose ultimate commanders are civilians--are not equipped to resist it.”
Instead of acknowledging the rise in sexual assaults, Taranto blamed the increase on the addition of new measures. But those same measures were used in the Department of Defense's 2012 Annual Report on Sexual Assault, which reported assaults by civilian personnel and those committed on civilians investigated by military officials. NBC News reported that the number of service members assaulted before entering the military is not new, and rose sharply from numbers reported a year earlier:
One senior defense official told NBC News that the Pentagon is still crunching those numbers, but said current estimates are that 9 percent to 10 percent of the total number of reports stemmed from incidents that occurred before the individual reporting entered the military -- a jump from 2.1 percent during the same reporting period in Fiscal Year 2012.
The senior defense official praised this increase, saying it shows victim confidence in the Defense Department's response and support system.
Military leaders agree that the growing numbers of reported sexual assaults are a problem that degrades the military. Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Campbell explained that “Like suicides, with sexual assaults, if you have one, it's too many.” During a May 7 press conference, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called sexual assaults “unacceptable,” adding that it is “a despicable crime” and “a threat to the safety and the welfare of our people and the health, reputation and trust of this institution.” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey described the growing sexual assault reports as a “crisis”:
“We're losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem,” Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey told reporters as he returned from NATO meetings in Brussels. “That's a crisis.”
Dempsey has actively been researching this issue since he became the Army's Training and Doctrine Command chief in 2008. He continued the research as Army chief of staff, and now as chairman.
“I tasked those around me to help me understand what a decade-plus of conflict may have done to the force,” he said. “Instinctively, I knew it had to have some effect.”
The chairman still cannot articulate what 10 years of war has done to the force, but he does think the increase in sexual assaults, the rise in suicides, and the increase in instances of misconduct and indiscipline are in some way related.
“This is not to make excuses,” he said. “We should be better than this. In fact, we have to be better than this.”