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Beyond a Reactive, Piecemeal Approach to Military Atrocities, Sexual and Otherwise

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Crossposted on Tikkun Daily

By: Timothy Villareal

Last month, New York senator Kristin Gillibrand, flanked by several women Senate colleagues, unveiled a bill aimed at the sexual assaults that plague the U.S. military. According to a Pentagon report, approximately 26,000 sexual assaults took place in the military last year alone. It is widely believed that many victims of military sexual assault never report the crimes out of fear of retaliation from higher-ups in the chain of command. The Pentagon estimate is therefore likely to be an underestimate. Indeed, you know that sexual violence in the military has reached epidemic proportions when even the officer in charge of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention programs is himself arrested for sexually assaulting a woman in a Washington-area parking lot.

Today, it was reported that Senator Gillibrand’s bill, which would have taken the decision of which sexual assault complaints to prosecute away from military commanders and give that authority to military prosecutors, has been axed in by the Senate Armed Services Committee chariman, Carl Levin, amidst growing pushback from the miltary’s top brass for such a reform. Senator Gillibrand is expected to press on with her bill in the full Senate.

It must be noted, however, that the aim of Gillibrand’s bill is simply to take away the fear of official retaliation that so many sexual assualt victims experience in the aftermath of the crimes. Gillibrand’s bill, in and of itself, would not actually do anything to curb military sexual assault, but rather, simply bring greater transparency to the commonplace sexual brutality and degradation of women and men in the U.S. military.

There’s a word for this kind of piecemeal legislative maneuvering that avoids getting at the core issue: pathetic.

But Senator Gillibrand, along with 27 Senate co-sponsors of her bill, are duly-elected members of Congress (however malapportioned the U.S. Senate may be.) As concerns this issue, their response to the military sexual assault crisis is indeed reflective of mainstream America’s current political approach to the military, which can be summed up thusly: yes, when women are raped, when soldiers commit war crimes, torture detainees at Abu Graib, or pee on the bodies of enemy combatants in Afghanistan (and photograph themselves doing so), there should be consequences for the violators. Other than that, says mainstream America, let’s just go ahead and live with the wholesale fiction that a mercenary-based military system – people who literally make their livelihoods off the practice of war – will produce something other than the grotesque immorality that causes such trauma, among military members themselves and those abroad.

To be sure, those directly involved in the military industrial complex, as well as some with their fingers and toes still in the system, are catching on that this wholly unrepresentative military system cannot possibly sustain itself in perpetuity: the values and lifestyle gap between civilian Americans and the brutal, Sparta-like military subculture they fund with their tax dollars will some day reach a tipping point. At some point, after the revelation of some major atrocity that so betrays all sense of common human decency, the American people will simply say, “Screw the military.” Professional warriors are already well ahead of that coming curve.

For example, the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, wrote recently in a New York Times op-ed, ” The civilian-military divide erodes the sense of duty that is critical to the health of our democratic republic, where the most important office is that of the citizen.” Eikenberry’s solution to military-civilian divide? A “draft lottery.” Eikenberry writes:

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