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A Question of Command: Allies Break with U.S. Over Military Sexual Assaults

A video has gone viral but it’s not the latest hit from Justin Bieber or a cute cat.

The Australian Army has posted a strongly worded, three-minute message from its chief, Lt. Gen. David Morrison. It’s gotten over a million views.

“Those who think it's okay to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues have no place in this Army,” said Morrison in the video, reacting to an alleged sex scandal involving inappropriate emails and images. “On all operations, female soldiers have proven themselves in the best traditions of the Australian army. They are vital to us, maintaining our capability now and into the future. If that does not suit you, then get out.”

The video message came not only as Australia was dealing with its own scandal, but as an epidemic of sexual assaults was revealed in the U.S. military. According to the U.S. Defense Department, 26,000 service members said they experienced unwanted sexual contact last year. But only 3,374 cases were actually reported to higher-ups. Many U.S. allies – the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany, Norway and Israel – have removed the system of reporting such cases from the chain of command. This is a move that U.S. military brass strongly resists.

“U.S. military position has always been that the discipline is a tool of the commander, and the commander needs to have that tool at his or her disposal if they’re to ensure discipline,” said Victor Hansen, a professor at New England Law Boston and the vice president of the National Institute of Military Justice. “So what you see is this reluctance to take the command out of that. Because they see this as a command problem, and if we take this tool away from commanders then they’ll have the inability to fix it.”

Indeed, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was clear on that position in testimony to the Senate Budget Committee last week.

“I don't personally believe that you can eliminate the command structure in the military from this process,” he said. “Because it is the culture, it is the institution, it's the people within that institution that have to fix the problem.”

Though a proposal to remove the chain of command from decisions about prosecuting sexual assaults was offered by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and 27 co-sponsors, neither the House nor the Senate included that in their defense spending bills.

Critics said the system not only stops men and women from reporting incidents that may involve fellow service members or superiors, but that the prosecution of those cases could also be derailed, because the chain of command is involved. Hansen, who served a 20-year career in the Army, mostly as a JAG Corps officer, said that military leaders are concerned that removing commanders from sexual assault issues could be a “slippery slope” of removing commanders from military justice issues altogether.

“I think it’s important to understand that these cases are difficult cases regardless of where they’re prosecuted,” said Hansen. “And to assume necessarily that if they are taken out of the chain of command and put into some other authority that that’s necessarily going to make these cases easier to prove, I’m not so sure I would believe that. There are all kinds of reasons for why these cases are difficult to prove that have nothing to do with fact that the chain of command is primarily responsible.”

Hansen said the military “needs to do a better job at ensuring the victims have the ability to make complaints and make those complaints without the fear of retribution or inaction without the chain of command. And that undoubtedly and unquestionable is a very difficult balance to strike.”

Just as U.S. followed its allies in repealing “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” should it follow suit in responding to the epidemic of sexual assault? Hansen cautioned that though U.S. allies have removed the chain of command from military justice issues, he has not seen any analysis to prove that they are more successful in prosecuting sexual assault cases.

Instead, Hansen advocated greater accountability.

“They need to do a better job to hold commanders accountable criminally,” said Hansen. “That’s where more work needs to be done. It’s not to take commanders out of the system but to hold them more accountable when they fail.”

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