Originally published in the Star Tribune:
Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland, who is being disciplined by the Army for attempting to stop the sexual abuse of children by an Afghan military officer, compared the U.S. military’s reaction to the rape of Afghan boys to the Penn State child sex abuse scandal. While the comparison is apt, it only begins to suggest the global nature of rape tolerance.
Although the Afghani and Penn State cases concerned boys, victims of sexual violence are most often women and girls. A 2013 global review established that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence. Put another way, the number of women affected by this crisis — 2.5 billion — roughly equals the combined populations of China and India.
The standard presentation given to Marines before serving abroad explains that “laws and norms about sexual relations vary from country to country,” and that in Afghanistan in particular, sexual assault is “a ‘cultural’ issue, and not a purely legal one.” Thus, the U.S. military excuses sexual abuse as a cultural phenomenon to be handled locally.
Looking at it this way permits Western society to ignore sexual assault as a byproduct of patriarchal societies with insufficient legal protections for women and children. To be clear, rape as a culturally condoned phenomenon does not just happen in developing countries, but occurs throughout the world, and specifically in the U.S. military. While it does not openly permit rape, our military allows and perpetuates the rape of women in its ranks through complicity and competing interests, creating a culture where sexual assault is condoned and victims are blamed.
The U.S. military, the most powerful in the world, has failed to prevent the rape and sexual assault of an estimated 500,000 of its own members over the last three generations. According to a Department of Defense report, approximately 19,000 sexual assaults or unwanted sexual contacts occurred in the military in 2014, an average of 52 new cases every day. These numbers are unchanged from 2010, despite widespread awareness of this issue.
Victims of rape in the U.S. military are afraid to speak out about attacks. The latest Defense Department report showed that 75 percent of the men and women in uniform who have been sexually assaulted lack confidence in the military justice system to report these crimes. Just eight months ago, sexual assault victims sued the Air Force over an unofficial songbook depicting sexual violence and depravity. One of the songs, set to the tune of “The Candy Man” from the film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” describes sticking ice picks in women’s ears and raping them from behind.
The U.S. military perpetuates rape within its own ranks by failing to impartially investigate or prosecute reports of sexual assault. A primary cause of this failure is undue influence from superiors during the investigation and prosecution. Under the applicable law, authority over criminal cases rests with the offender’s commander rather than trained military legal personnel. The commander can make charging decisions, select jury members, and modify or overturn court decisions. This creates a patently biased judicial system that compromises access to justice for the victim and the accused’s right to a fair and impartial trial.
Reporting assaults can also lead to retaliation against victims by fellow service members and commanders. A 2014 survey of all service members who reported assaults showed that 62 percent experienced some social or professional retaliation, including reduction in rank, decrease in pay or being forced out of the military entirely.
The military has resisted efforts to bring greater accountability to its handling of sexual assault cases, despite similar changes made by U.S. allies without a negative impact to good order and discipline. In 2013 and 2014, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act, which would reassign authority to prosecute serious crimes to an impartial military prosecutor. Leaders of national veterans service organizations endorsed the measure. Unfortunately, all of Gillibrand’s efforts have been rejected by the Senate, despite widespread support for the restructuring.
Excusing Afghan commanders’ sexual assault of children as a “cultural issue” is heinous, but it’s just a different version of tolerance for the daily sexual assault of women by their military brethren. The problem is indeed one of culture. It is a global culture that supports, condones, or ignores sexually violent messages and behavior. It is a culture that must be rooted out wherever it occurs to achieve a world where women’s and children’s human right to freedom from violence is realized.