The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee held hearings Tuesday into sexual assault in the military, following a Pentagon report that found as many as 26,000 cases of abuse in the past year.
A recent documentary alleges the military is crawling with sexual predators, and a new Pentagon report shows a 35 percent rise in cases of “unwanted sexual contact” in the last two years.
Both have angered lawmakers - especially women lawmakers. Several on the Senate Armed Services Committee gave the all-male top brass an earful.
“You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you, that you will actually bring justice in these cases," said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, New York. "They’re afraid to report. They think their careers will be over. They fear retaliation. They fear being blamed."
Gillibrand has proposed legislation that would allow sexual assaults to be reported outside the chain of command.
Proponents of the legislation say that’s what been done by the defense forces of allies such as Israel.
But Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno warned it could weaken discipline. “If I believed that removing commanders from their central role of responsibility in addressing sexual assault would solve these crimes within our ranks, I would be your strongest proponent," he said. "But removing commanders, making commanders less responsible and less accountable, will not work.”
He promised to create a safer environment for women but said it is wrong to - “legislate our way out of the problem.”
That prompted a lecture from Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri. “There are two problems. One is you have sexual predators who are committing crimes. Two, you have work to do on a respectful work environment," she stated. "These are not the same issues. With all due respect General Odierno, we can prosecute our way out of the first issue."
She admonished commanders who blame the problem on promiscuous youth. “This isn’t about sex. This is about assaultive domination and violence," she said. "And as long as those two get mushed together you all are not going to be as successful as you need to be.”
The panel also heard from former Marine Captain Anu Bhagwati, who described the military as rooted in sexist traditions and rites of passage. “Going to strip clubs, brothels, red light districts both within the United States and overseas, exposure to violent bestial pornography, rape jokes and constant verbal harassment," he explained.
The military acknowledges that it's dealing with an epidemic of sexual assaults. But commanders worry that legislation coming out of these hearings may end up undercutting their authority.