Robert B. Simpson: Accountability is key to ending sex assaults

June 8, 2013 

Marshal Stalin is alleged to have said, "The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic." Likewise, one rape is a tragedy. With sexual assaults in the armed services having gone from an estimated 19,000 in a year a few months ago, and now at 26,000, we seem to have moved to the impersonal statistics level.

Given that this problem is not new, and that senior officials in the services have declared in the past that they will fix the situation and harbor "zero tolerance" for sexual assaults, it is my opinion that what was likely to happen next should have been obvious to a blind man. Or at least to an ordinary sighted person such as I, with no pretensions to intellectual superiority and no claim to inside knowledge. I began worrying a long time back that if the military services didn't correct this outrageous problem quickly, Congress would attempt to step in and fix it for them.

Now that process is under way. Some members of Congress are strongly suggesting that responsibility for dealing with sexual misconduct be taken out of the military chain of command and handled by a special outside organization.

This reaction is understandable. Aside from the opportunity for members of Congress to grandstand for the television cameras, they also have the rare opportunity to appear to be on the side of the angels as they tackle a problem all reasonable people want solved and solved now. And they can also appeal to the sizeable portion of the population that takes pleasure in seeing men in colorful uniforms, sparkling with stars and bright ribbons, publicly chastised like naughty schoolboys. Why not smack them, scold them, and simultaneously yank a key duty out of their hands by removing responsibility for dealing with sexual assaults from the chain of command and turning it over to highly trained outsiders?

Well, because that would be a very dumb solution. The chain of command is vital to a military organization. To weaken it so as to develop a short-term fix to a problem is likely to cause immeasurable harm to the fighting force involved, like a farmer burning down his corn crib to get rid of the rats. Besides which, there are better solutions.

In February 1943, the U.S. II Corps, defending at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, was soundly defeated and driven back 50 miles by Axis forces led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The II Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, was relieved of command. He was replaced by a commander whose name you may recall, Maj. Gen. George S. Patton. Nobody suggested bringing in a highly trained band of experts, civilian or otherwise, to solve the problem. A tried and true formula was used, one that had worked before and would work again. A commander is given a mission. Assuming he has the resources needed to do the job, failing to do so leads to his being relieved and replaced. Brutal? Yes. Effective? Yes. And it has the additional advantage of seriously concentrating the mind of every other commander.

This process is a waste of time if used only at the lowest level. Gen. Eisenhower didn't fire a couple of company commanders or a platoon sergeant or two. He fired the top commander of the force charged with holding Kasserine Pass. In the same way, ending this hemorrhage of criminal sexual misconduct requires giving the mission of ending it to each of the services and then holding their chiefs responsible. And firing them if it doesn't happen.

I don't suggest this lightly, nor sarcastically. I have great respect for the senior military leaders of our armed forces. What is required of them is far beyond what the average citizen can even imagine, and they put forth superhuman effort. I've seen some of their predecessors up close, and I know what a horrendous load they carry. Nevertheless, this is a problem that must be solved, and only they can solve it.

If this approach is followed, I suspect many subordinate leaders will rapidly learn how much their careers depend upon finding and severely punishing the guilty in these matters. I would bet that positive results will be seen. If some distinguished careers are damaged, that will be regrettable. But not so regrettable as allowing the disgraceful current level of criminal damage to our service members to continue.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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