Our Military, Ourselves

Why Americans are to blame for the Pentagon's outrageous sex scandals.

Ongoing rampant sexual assault within America's armed forces is a tragedy. The 2012 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members (WGRA) found that an estimated 26,000 active-duty servicemembers were sexually assaulted last year, and recent allegations of sexual assault by officers assigned to prevent that very crime have lent the situation a sinister irony. The U.S. military is clearly facing, in the words of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, "a crisis."

Last week, Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, declared that confronting the problem was his "No. 1 priority." Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno went further, saying: "The Army is failing in its efforts to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment." He said that fighting the crime is now "our primary mission." Repeating the claims of his two predecessors, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel vowed to solve the chronic problem of sexual assault and stated that "every option is on the table."

The estimated incidents of "unwanted sexual contact" within the military have increased since the previous survey in 2010 despite internal reforms. When reviewing the Pentagon and service websites dedicated to preventing sexual assault, it is difficult to comprehend the vast number of new directives, memoranda, instructions, policies, and awareness-raising campaigns that have been introduced over the past three years -- none of which seems to be having an effect. Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, referred to these efforts as "half-hearted, half-measured reform Band-Aids."

Unfortunately, however admirable the recent condemnations of sexual assault in the military, they're unlikely to have much impact, because sexual assault in the military is not a military problem. It is an American problem. Scholars, retired officers, and others have longed warned of the creeping militarization of American society. However, as the Pentagon yet again renews its sexual assault prevention efforts, it must not discount the socialization of the American military.

The data suggest that one servicemember is sexually assaulted every 20 minutes and that one American citizen is sexually assaulted every two minutes, but it is difficult to directly compare military and civilian sexual assault rates. The WGRA defines "unwanted sexual contact" as "completed or attempted sexual intercourse, sodomy (oral or anal sex), penetration by an object, and the unwanted touching of genitalia and other sexually-related areas of the body." Survey participants were asked to report incidents occurring in the past 12 months. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice survey used to calculate sexual assaults nationwide asks participants if anyone has "attacked" or "threatened" them by "grabbing, punching, or choking" or by "any rape, attempted rape or other type of sexual act" over the course of the past six months. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent survey on the nationwide prevalence of sexual violence, 5.3 percent of English- and/or Spanish-speaking American women age 18 and older, who were not institutionalized or in the armed forces, were victims of unwanted sexual contact, including rape and other acts of sexual violence, in 2010. An estimated 4.9 percent of men experienced forms of sexual violence other than rape. (Unfortunately, the sample population of males reported too few incidents of rape for an estimate to be determined, which may allude to a low reporting rate rather than a low incident rate.)

Although sexual violence has decreased nationwide over the past two decades, that downward trend cannot be taken for granted because we do not know why it happened. And, regardless, the number of incidents remains shockingly high. Within the military, 6.1 percent of female servicemembers and 1.2 percent of male servicemembers reported unwanted sexual contact in 2012. The prevalence of sexual assault within the ranks is a snapshot of the crisis facing the United States, where "13% of women and 6% of men are sexually coerced in their lifetimes," according to the CDC.

Military officials' attempts to blame the crisis on American society have understandably been clumsy. During a May 7 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Gen. Welsh attributed the rates of sexual assault in the military, in part, to the "hookup mentality of junior high." He later apologized for the remark, noting that he wished he had taken more time to explain himself. He added: "We have to get at instilling from the day people walk in the door in our Air Force this idea of respect, inclusion, diversity, and value of every individual."

But Welsh had a good point: No one who enters the military does so with a blank slate. All servicemembers have at least 17 years of cultural experience prior to signing up. One need only flip through a few channels on cable television or spend a few moments surfing the Internet to understand, as Tom Vanden Brook and Gregg Zoroya noted in a recent article, that male servicemembers (who make up 85 percent of the military) are drawn from a society in which "violence and objectification of women are staple elements."

American women are born into a society in which the "importance" of beauty and sexuality is emphasized in their personal and professional lives. Despite great achievements in gender equality, sexism persists in the United States and frequently goes unnoticed because it is so deeply engrained in our culture. "It seems to be increasingly difficult to talk about sexism, equality and women's rights in a modern society that perceives itself to have achieved gender equality," writes Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which uses social media to measure sexism faced by women. In truth, the United States remains far from gender equality: last year, it was ranked 42nd on the Gender Inequality Index, which quantifies and analyzes reproductive health, political and educational empowerment, and participation in the labor force.

Despite progress in many areas, American culture remains bluntly sexist -- and has become increasingly sexualized. The Disney princess movies, which are still a childhood staple of most American girls, convey that beauty and sexuality are key to "happily ever after." The music industry is no different. A 2012 study by Cynthia Frisby and Jennifer Aubrey found that female artists are increasingly using sexual imagery to brand their products and that "young audiences may interpret these sexually objectifying images as important ways to be seen as attractive and valuable to society." Natasha Walter, author of Living Dolls, wrote that, as a result, women are confusing sexual objectification with empowerment. Of course, men also face daunting social expectations to be powerful, strong, and "manly."

Sexism is also evident in more glaring forms. Just this past weekend, radio host Pete Santilli casually remarked that Hillary Clinton should be "shot in the vagina" -- vulgar, gender-based language that belittled and threatened the former secretary of state. In a similar instance just over a year ago, Rush Limbaugh proudly referred to Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown University, as a "slut" and a "prostitute" because she believed that health insurance companies should cover the cost of contraceptives.

Current and retired military officers should openly and repeatedly condemn sexism and the attendant pervasiveness of sexual assaults within society, just as they often warn about societal trends that negatively impact the ability to recruit, train, and equip the force. That's what they did with high school graduation rates and obesity -- see the 2012 "Too Fat to Fight" study. If a lack of education or fitness can be categorized as threats to our national security, then surely sexual violence should qualify as well.

Last week, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little stated: "It is, in my opinion, and I believe the secretary's position, not good enough to compare us to the rest of society. This is the United States military and the Department of Defense. It really doesn't matter if our rates are similar to the rest of society, quite frankly. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard and that's what the American people demand." That may be so, but how can the issue be effectively addressed without improving standards throughout society?

If you spend any time at a post or base -- much less a reserve depot or National Guard armory -- you realize that the military is neither isolated nor insulated from American society, nor should it be. Addressing this sexual assault crisis as solely a military problem would merely place another Band-Aid on a national wound; success will elude even the most comprehensive military reforms. If policymakers and military officials wish to stand by their commitments to eradicate the culture of sexual violence in the military, they must confront its root cause.

On Friday, Hagel proclaimed: "We all have committed to turn this around, and we're going to fix the problem....The problem will be solved here in this institution." No, Mr. Secretary, it won't.

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for USO Metropolitan New York

National Security

Talking in Circles

Why Harold Koh's big speech on targeted killings is just more of the same, intentional Obama muddle.

Like many former senior Obama administration officials, Harold Koh has expressed his concerns about U.S. drone strike policies. As the former State Department legal adviser, he played an essential role in articulating and defending the international legal principles that supported "U.S. targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles," as he stated in a March 2010 speech. Koh was also responsible for coordinating the official U.S. government response to questions raised by U.N. special rapporteurs and within the Human Rights Council. As Koh proclaimed last summer, "I did not come to government because I wanted to work on killing people."

Unfortunately for him, because President Barack Obama authorized over 375 drone strikes killing over 3,000 people while Koh was the State Department's lead lawyer, he's been forced to dedicate a great deal of time to killing people.

Unfortunately, in a speech made two days ago at the Oxford Union, Koh demonstrated that he plans to maintain the fundamental myth of the Obama administration's targeted killing program: that everyone killed is a senior al Qaeda official or member who poses an imminent threat of attack on the U.S. homeland. In April 2010, Koh claimed, regarding targeted killings: "I have never changed my mind. Not from before I was in the government -- or after." Apparently, that sentiment remains true today. Consider several passages from the "disciplining drones" section of his most recent speech:

Few dispute that targeted killing may on balance promote human rights if it targets only sworn leaders -- like bin Laden himself -- to save the lives of many innocent civilians from unprovoked attack.

Few dispute this because it is irrelevant to the vast majority of individuals that have been targeted with drones: militants in Pakistan who pose a threat to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and those individuals primarily focused on domestic insurgencies in Pakistan and Yemen. But using bin Laden's name as the reference point and justification for drone strikes is intended to perpetually link all U.S. counterterrorism operations to the tragedy of 9/11.

Koh then invites his audience to imagine what the U.S. response to 9/11 would have been if Al Gore had been elected president. Koh claims that there would have been "100 percent approval" if a President Gore stated:

We must incapacitate -- by capture if possible, by killing if necessary -- Osama bin Laden and his senior operational leaders -- several hundred in all -- who pose a direct threat to the United States.

Again, the American public would have endorsed such a speech -- and if the United States had only captured or killed several hundred al Qaeda leaders (rather than the 3,500 to 4,700 suspected terrorists and civilians that have died to date), this would be relevant. However, thanks to the unprecedented revelations provided by Jonathan Landay, we now know that even the CIA does not think that only senior operational leaders have been targeted. Moreover, I am unaware of any official estimate that al Qaeda had "several hundred" senior operational leaders. Al Qaeda never had such a hierarchical and top-heavy organizational structure. It was more Bloomberg than Pentagon.

Koh then admirably makes several recommendations to the administration, three of which would be useful reforms:

Make public and transparent its legal standards and institutional processes for targeting and drone strikes....

clarify its method of counting civilian casualties, and why that method is consistent with international humanitarian law standards....

Where factual disputes exist about the threat level against which past drone strikes were directed, the administration should release the factual record....doing it could explain what gave it cause to believe that particular threats were imminent, called for the immediate exercise of self-defense.

The first part of the first recommendation could have been implemented at any time on Koh's watch. As I noted earlier, U.N. investigators have asked U.S. officials since President George W. Bush was in office to clearly articulate what international laws apply to U.S. targeted killings. The official response released by Koh's office in 2010 declared: "International human rights law and international humanitarian law are complementary, reinforcing, and animated by humanitarian principles designed to protect innocent life."

My experience of speaking with legal scholars about drone strikes is that nobody agrees on much. However, most contend that these are distinct bodies of law, and their applicability depends on how one conceives of the scope of armed conflict in which the United States is engaged. And if targeted killings are assessed through an international human rights law framework, then some legal scholars contend that they violate many articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States acceded in 1992. The same motivation that Koh did not delineate back in 2010 could be why the Obama administration will still not in 2013 -- namely, that they want to retain flexibility over what legal standards should apply to drones.

The second recommendation should be adopted and implemented by the Obama administration today. But doing so will require that the United States acknowledge that it conducts signature strikes against anonymous military-age males, which no government official has ever done publicly. When CIA Director John Brennan was asked during a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing three weeks ago, "Is there any way that you can define and distinguish between targeted strikes and signature strikes by drones?" he stonewalled. "I'm not going to engage in any type of discussion on that here today, congresswoman."

This was reflected by Mark Mazzetti, who recently wrote: "American officials admit it is nearly impossible to judge a person's age from thousands of feet in the air." Likewise, it will be especially difficult to endorse a methodology for counting civilian casualties when the CIA's post-strike assessments use terms like "foreign fighters" and "other militants."

When I spoke to Sarah Holewinski, the executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, about Koh's recommendation, she wondered whether it could be implemented for non-battlefield targeted killings given that the U.S. military will not provide that level of detail for airstrikes in Afghanistan. Holewinski also noted that the Obama administration must first define what it considers a combatant and a civilian before it presents whatever its internal protocols are for civilian harm mitigation -- those should be shared with Congress first (we do not know if they are), and then made available for public scrutiny. Furthermore, Holewinski added, "preventing civilian harm isn't only saying that you do, but also showing and proving it, both with Congress and the public."

Koh's third recommendation is not likely to be realized, since many would dispute the threat level against which the vast majority of drone strikes occurred, and no administration is going to compel the CIA to present the evidentiary basis for which it determined someone was an imminent threat and should therefore be killed.

When I sent the recommendation to a former senior intelligence official, they replied by e-mail: "1) Never happen. 2) how would you prove ‘threat level' w/out revealing sources/methods. 3) Wouldn't you have to do this for all the detainees as well?" Moreover, according to the CIA's own records, on May 22, 2007, a strike was conducted at the request of Pakistani intelligence to assist the Pakistani Army when it was assaulting an insurgent training camp. Koh could start by explaining how the individuals killed -- while providing close air support to Pakistani counterinsurgency operations -- posed an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland.

Koh's Oxford Union speech offered several important recommendations that could significantly improve transparency, oversight, and public knowledge of how the United States conducts lethal counterterrorism operations. Unfortunately, all of the reasons for which they will be difficult to implement and publicly defend are demonstrated in how the Obama administration chose to justify and conduct targeted killings throughout the president's first term. As was true with issues like government transparency and the closing of Guantanamo, the president and his senior advisers acknowledged concerns regarding U.S. drone strike policies, thus raising expectations that they were serious about reforming them. Rather than engage in a conversation with the public and Congress about such reforms, they default to recirculating old speeches, which contain their own shortcomings that are never addressed.

As the Obama administration prepares its forthcoming drone strike reforms, it should reach out to the former senior civilian and military officials that have spoken out against aspects of U.S. targeted-killing policies and provided their own recommendations. President Obama and his aides admit that how the United States defends and conducts drone strikes is setting a precedent that other states may emulate. Before the White House rolls out its reforms, it should ask itself: "What would we want Beijing to say after it conducts its first drone strike?"