Sanity Prevails in Senate Debate on Sexual Assault in Military

Last week, the U.S. Senate chose between two competing bills on sexual assault in the military. The successful bill, authored by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), prevents those accused of crimes from using positive character evidence–the so-called “good soldier” defense–in their trials. The failed bill, by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), would have removed authority from commanding officers in sexual assault cases. It failed to reach cloture.

Gillibrand cast opponents of her legislation as opponents of the victims of sexual assault. Yet the reality is that removing the role of commanding officers in such cases could have created new problems, as they washed their hands of responsibility for confronting the problem in their units. It might also have seen the creation of a parallel structure of sexual assault commissars, overruling the chain of command and disrupting unit cohesion.

Moreover, while the issue of sexual assault in the military is a real one, it is also one that has been demagogued for political purposes. The military already deals with sexual assault in a very aggressive, victim-friendly way–one whose standards far exceed those of universities, for example. High profile cases contributed to a sense of crisis–yet the point is that no one, not even senior officers, is immune from investigation and punishment.

In addition, President Barack Obama’s repeated exploitation of the issue backfired last year, when his comments about accused sexual assault perpetrators tainted ongoing military trials, meaning that alleged victims in those cases might not obtain justice. His use of “unlawful command influence” on those cases were “certain to complicate almost all prosecutions for sexual assault,” the New York Times reported.