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Rape In The Military: An Epic Tragedy Enabled By Poor Governance

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Raphael Bostic

Originally posted, October 1, 2013 @ 2:05PM

Did you see the recent New York Times article on the outrageous questioning of an alleged rape victim during a military trial? The scene described dovetails with events going on at the University of Southern California Price School, where I teach and direct the Bedrosian Center on Governance. It also highlights how poor governance structures can make a bad system even worse.

Last week, the Price School honored three visionary Americans at its annual Guardian Awards ceremony. In preparation for the event, I viewed An Invisible War by one of the honorees, Kirby Dick.  What I watched stunned and disturbed me.

The documentary looks at the problem of rape in the military and chronicles the ordeals of several service members who were raped, but unable to obtain justice or peace. The anguish of the assault is made worse by a culture and system of governance that seemingly punishes the victims and shields the perpetrators of these awful acts.

Let me first look at culture. Dick’s film makes clear that the military culture is built on the premise that strength overcomes all. If you are victimized, it’s because you are weak and/or allowed it to happen to you. Both are “X marks” that can have adverse career implications. In this case, the problem is that those who commit sexual assaults are predators skilled at taking advantage of even seemingly benign situations.  Even someone quite strong can face this kind of exploitation; denying this reality potentially harms everyone.

In terms of governance, the military justice system is not like the civilian system. The former does have the same limits to how a plaintiff can be treated on the stand. What’s more, the ultimate arbiter is someone in the officer’s line of command. This introduces two major problems:

First, it places the victim on trial. If you doubt this happens, read that New York Times article. It’s a big problem.

Second, the assailant will often be in the victim’s chain of command. It is hard to imagine that a junior officer’s claim will carry more sway than a senior officer’s word, even when the junior officer is telling the truth. It’s hard seeing justice truly being done in this kind of structure.

Congress is (once again) looking at steps to change some of these perverse governance structures. In the Senate, Senators Claire McCaskill and Kirsten Gillibrand have taken the lead in trying to change the system, including moving adjudication of these cases beyond the chain of command.

While some of the strongest reforms have been watered down, anything is better than what we have today.  Let’s all pray that meaningful change happens, so we can protect those who are making a great sacrifice to protect us and our way of life.

Bedrosian Center