Ending the combat zone ban enables women’s promotion. Only that can alter the US armed forces’ institutional problem with rape
The announcement that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will formally lift the ban on women serving in ground combat units is the logical culmination to a decade of war in which women have been fighting – and dying – on the front lines. The decision overturns a 1994 rule that stated “women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.”
But to say that the change is simply an acknowledgement of reality misses the point. This is less about the right to fight than the right to be promoted.
Serving in combat units, in addition to experiencing combat, is critical for advancement to the highest ranks of the military. Men like Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and James Mattis, commander of Central Command, ascended to the upper echelons of their profession because of the experience they gained along the way, serving as company executive officers, battalion operations officers, and brigade commanders. Because women have not been allowed to serve in combat units, they have not been afforded the opportunity to hold these billets – and thus their promotion opportunities were severely limited.
Combat experience is an invaluable skill when evaluating personnel to select for promotion. Men with exceptional performance in each of the billets on the “roadmap” to general officer are more competitive than the men and women with exceptional performance in non-combat billets. Although women have performed admirably in combat during the last decade, because they have not served in billets in ground combat units, their chances at promotion to general officer were still small compared to their male counterparts.
The removal of this glass ceiling is a long overdue development. Yet, the task of formally integrating women into the all-male world of grunts and tanks will be long and difficult. The department has a more immediate and serious problem on its hands, however, than a lack of women generals.
The US military has an epidemic of sexual violence and assault within the ranks, which continues unabated. The statistics shock the conscience.
In fiscal year 2011, the military had 3,192 reported cases of sexual assault; the real incidence is estimated to be much higher because so many cases are not reported. Last January, Secretary Panetta admitted he believes the real number of sexual assaults to be closer to 19,000. One in three military women will experience sexual assault, compared with one in six civilian women.
The problem goes well beyond sexual harassment as the byproduct of a chauvinistic work environment. The majority of investigated sexual assault offenses fell into three categories: wrongful sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault, and rape. Aggravated sexual assault and rape accounted for 61% of all alleged offenses.
Even more egregious than the sheer number of cases – if that’s even possible – is the lack of successful prosecution and punishment for the offenders. The 3,192 cases reported in (financial year) 2011 resulted in just 191 convictions. Only 17% of attackers are prosecuted and just 6% spend any time in jail.
Many perpetrators are simply reduced in rank, fined, or administratively separated from the military. Roughly 6% are simply allowed to leave the military in lieu of court martial.
Having swept this problem under the rug for decades, the military is significantly behind the curve compared to the civilian system when it comes to investigating and prosecuting cases of sexual violence. For instance, military judge advocates often lack the training to prosecute sexual assaults; and not all military hospitals are prepared to perform rape examinations. The military only recently began the process of creating special victims units dedicated to sexual assault investigations and prosecutions.
At issue is a military culture that has largely discouraged women from reporting and pursuing charges of sexual assault against their male counterparts and superiors. The pressure not to report a sexual assault is institutional – women are afraid of harming their own careers if they come forward. One need only search the web to read case after case of women who were advised not to press charges. In many cases, female accusers were themselves prosecuted for adultery or separated from the military under the pretense of having a “personality disorder”.
To help improve the prosecution rate of sexual offenders, Secretary Panetta mandated a number of changes. He moved the review of all sexual assault cases up the chain of command to more senior officers, colonels or navy captains, with the power to convene special courts martial. And he said the Pentagon would create special victims units designed specifically to handle these cases (as was formalized by the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act).
In an interview last year, Panetta acknowledged part of standing up to sexual assault was “moving women into command positions”. By opening up hundreds of command positions previously off-limits because of the combat role ban, thus removing the last remaining obstacle to women’s advancement within the military hierarchy, Panetta might have struck a major blow against the epidemic of sexual assault.
Still, many of those positions won’t be filled for years. And that is far too late for the estimated 45 women service members who will be sexually assaulted today.