A Missed Opportunity

Many female service members deployed overseas stop drinking water after 7 p.m. to reduce the risk of being raped if they have to make a nighttime trip to the bathroom. A new class action lawsuit against the military contends that sexual assault occurs twice as frequently in the military as in civilian society. But the recent critique of the military has focused on the institutional discrimination in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), not on the ugly, equally pressing problem of sexual assault, and in President Drew G. Faust’s recent remarks connecting the end of DADT to the beginning of a Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) at Harvard, we see the same singling out of discriminatory policy as an obstacle to progress.  If Harvard is fighting the good fight, Faust’s high-profile announcement was a missed opportunity for broader comment on how we’d like our armed forces to change.

Some background: On December 18, 2010, President Faust released a statement announcing her intention to work with military officials to achieve “full and formal recognition of ROTC,” an announcement that was expected after the Senate’s long-awaited repeal of DADT. The link between a potential Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) at Harvard and the existence of DADT had become national news. In a September interview in The Boston Globe, Faust indicated that she would allow ROTC on campus once the Clinton-era law banning gay and lesbian service members from serving openly was repealed. The repeal of DADT marked the end of the military’s violation of Harvard's non-discrimination policy.The message to the military was clear: Your discriminatory policy is gone, so now you pass by our standards.

But did Faust’s sole focus on the non-discrimination policy as grounds for refusing—and now welcoming—the military ignore other serious problems in the military that we can’t label “institutional discrimination”?

In March 2010, the Pentagon released an annual report on sexual assault showing an 11 percent jump in reports of sexual assault in the military in 2009. At least part of this rise is likely attributable to better reporting services and a military more attune to victims’ fears of coming forward with their stories. There is no doubt that the military has become more accountable for sexual assault since 2004, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ordered a review process for how the military handled sexual assault. A year later, SAPRO, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, became the permanent point of accountability and oversight for sexual assault policy, and it has been credited with better training for first-responders, enhanced methods of treatment, and more prosecutions of perpetrators. If 80 to 90 percent of sexual assaults go unreported, as SAPRO estimates, a rise in reported assaults may just mean that the victims, predominantly female, are now more comfortable coming forward. But there is reason to believe that this is not the full story.

Exactly one week before President Faust announced her satisfaction with the end of DADT, the ACLU, SWAN, the Service Women’s Action Network, and a handful of Yale Law students filed a lawsuit pressing the Pentagon to release its rape records. While it’s tough to root for Yale, it’s tougher to side with a military that won’t make public a vital set of data on this urgent problem.  The plaintiffs assert that the problem of sexual assault is far greater than the Pentagon or SAPRO is willing to admit. The military may be doing something to prevent sexual assault, but it is not doing enough. A recent Boston Globe editorial described the absence of guaranteed access to legal counsel for victims, suggesting that it could draw attention to the failure of the military to provide for its service members.  Even the touted prosecutions of perpetrators are dismally low—only eight percent of sex offenders are prosecuted in the military, compared to 32 percent in civilian society, according to SWAN. And of those prosecuted, a whopping 80 percent receive an honorable discharge. Apparently there is something commendable about raping your fellow soldier. There have been no activist superstars or superstar activists fighting this injustice, but salience is not always tantamount to significance.

Speaking of popularity, it was popular anti-war sentiment on campus that led the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to vote on February 4, 1969 to deny ROTC course credit. Generally remembered— albeit incorrectly—as Harvard’s abolition of ROTC on campus, it was a seminal moment in the University’s history of activism, prompting many universities around the country to take similar action. Thus, the recent controversy over ROTC did not begin as a DADT issue, it became one. President Faust, Justice Elena Kagan, and other Harvard administrators have used their influence admirably in making a stand against a discriminatory policy. But in her silence (or at least brevity), President Faust indicated a sense of finality in critique of the military. Regardless of whether or not it should stand in the way of ROTC’s reinstitution, military sexual assault is an urgent and noxious crisis that deserves far more attention from the media, the military, and the University than it has received—and Faust missed a striking opportunity to bring it up for discussion.

Jacob J. Hutt ’13, a Social Studies concentrator, lives in Quincy House.