Defense Bill: Dealing with Sexual Assault in the Military

I was going through my daily Yahoo News slideshow and came across this article about the new defense bill, which includes changes as to how the military deals with sexual assault. The bill was passed with support from both parties, in both houses of Congress. Before I get into the contents of this article, I think it’s interesting that Congress seems to have no problem agreeing on the terms for bills that affect the military, but it’s a full fledged war when it comes to talking about giving people the domestic programs (Social Security, Food Stamps, etc) they actually need. Doesn’t matter how high our deficit is, I guess we always have money for the military. The most important parts of the bill are outlined below:

The legislation would strip military commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, require a civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case and require that any individual convicted of sexual assault face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal. The bill also would provide victims with legal counsel, eliminate the statute of limitations for courts-martial in rape and sexual assault cases, and criminalize retaliation against victims who report a sexual assault.

Definitely some progress with in this bill. The bill will hopefully encourage more victims to speak up, especially now that they have a lot more protection. Senator Boxer (D-California, West Coast represent!) said that victims shouldn’t be put on trial simply for making the decision to come forward. This quote actually reminded me a lot about the stories we’ve heard from victims of sexual assault here at Amherst. It seems that one of the problems Amherst had in handling these assaults is that oftentimes victims were put on the defensive about their reports; they felt like they were the ones on trial. I won’t go too much into that because I don’t actually have a clue as to what went down in those proceedings, but just an interesting connection.

One of the most contentious fights during the hearings for this bill came from Senators  Gillibrand and McCaskill. They questioned whether the mostly male leadership of the military was fit to handle sexual assault cases. Gillibrand included an proposal for victims to have a way of reporting assault that was independent from their chain of command, effectively taking away the power from leaders to handle these assault cases. Interestingly, this grew strong opposition from the Pentagon and other lawmakers. I think that the rejection of this last proposal is problematic because it might still discourage victims from coming forward. Sure, a victim could get a hearing if the commander refuses to hear their case, but if the commander isn’t even willing to look at the case, that victim might be discouraged and drop the case all together. These victims aren’t going to want to come forward if the people to whom they have to report are also implicated in this whole ordeal.

A part of this is all about power, and who has that control over people’s lived experiences. I think taking all say about cases involving assault from military commanders is a good thing. It might give victims of assault more say in the matter because they’ll be working with an independent party. What will happen because of this bill remains to be seen, but I’m hopeful that it’ll give victims the power to come forward. I can’t imagine it being easy to come forward in the first place, especially when the person you’re accusing might be someone in your squad or in your chain of command.

This article reminded me of a conversation we’ve been having all semester: how can you tear down the master’s house using the master’s tools? Without Gillibrand’s proposal, victims are still kind of stuck in this system of going to the master for help….in tearing down the master’s house. That could put everyone in an awkward situation, I think.

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One thought on “Defense Bill: Dealing with Sexual Assault in the Military

  1. I actually ended up following this somewhat closely when it was going through Congress, and so, I don’t entirely agree with your characterization that it was passed with bipartisan support just because it was military-related legislation – it was a huge fight to get the bill passed to help survivors. Sadly, the legislation that was passed was actually fairly limited in scope, as Gillibrand’s proposal has not been included in the amended legislation so far, and so although it may help, there is still more that needs to be done.

    Have you seen The Invisible War by Kirby Dick? It’s a really fantastic documentary about sexual assault in the military and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about these issues. It’s available streaming on Netflix – be warned though, it can be hard to watch at times, but it is really worth it.

    In regards to the Audre Lorde reference – I think it’s as important to work inside structures and institutions to change them as it is and to disrupt them from the inside. Call me a pragmatist, but without people working from change on the inside, I don’t see how meaningful social transformation will happen, let alone last.

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