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The Bunker: A Continuing Pentagon Plague

The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.

This week in The Bunker: sexual assault in the ranks is getting worse; a special commission takes aim at Confederates plaguing the U.S. Military Academy; Biden’s poor choice for his “soul of America” speech; and more.


New data show it’s getting worse

For years, the military camouflaged its disconcerting annual reports showing that sexual assault in the ranks was growing with a knowing caveat: the numbers were rising only because more troops, confident that the military was now taking their allegations seriously, were willing to come forward. Turns out, like a lot of Pentagon platitudes, that’s not true, according to a new Defense Department report (PDF) released September 1.

Even as the Pentagon estimates, via confidential surveys, that the total number of sexual assaults continues to climb, the share of those troops coming forward to report such crimes is dropping. “Only about 20 percent, or one in five, service members impacted by sexual assault reported their crime,” Nathan Galbreath, the acting director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, acknowledged. “That’s down from what you see in 2016 and 2018, when we estimated that one in three, or 30 percent, were reporting their crime.” At a press conference five years ago, a top Pentagon official said the department identified “the increase in rates of reporting as an indicator of a continued trust in our response and support systems.” In 2021, a one-third drop in such reporting means that trust is evaporating.

Reports of sexual assaults jumped 13% from 2020 to 2021. Last year, 8.4% of military women reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact during the prior year, the highest rate since the military started keeping track in 2004. The rate is 1.5% for men. Even the Pentagon’s own press release detailing the report said, right at the top, that “unhealthy conditions have been on the rise in the military.” The deluge has swamped those in uniform charged with handling such cases. “Sexual assault responders indicated significantly higher rates of burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma” than in the past, the report said.

Such behavior also hampers recruitment. The Pentagon is seeing “declining confidence in potential recruits and in their influencers, in terms of whether the military is doing a good job addressing sexual assault,” Ashlea Klahr, a Pentagon health researcher, said. That’s a big problem, given the military’s difficulties in getting enough recruits to fill its ranks. The Pentagon has rolled out numerous programs and training exercises designed to reduce sexual assault, yet reports of sexual assault have generally increased every year since 2006.

The Bunker has covered women in uniform for decades, ranging from successes to failures. But for just as long, there has been a persistent undercurrent of sexual harassment and assault that has acted as a brake on many careers. There are multiple causes, and the current political climate isn’t helping, either.

So, the Pentagon is moving on to its favorite solution: cash.

Many Defense Department recommendations on the subject haven’t come with money to carry them out. But there is $479 million for efforts to address sexual assault in the military in the proposed Pentagon budget for next year. “One of the things that we’re really seeing that I think is going to make the greatest change is that investment,” Galbreath said. The nearly half-billion dollars “is going to go a long way towards funding and sustaining these changes.”

Right. And if spending translated into success, the Pentagon would never lose a war.


Out of line at the military academies

The congressionally appointed panel charged with ridding shameful names from U.S. military installations — it already tackled Army posts (PDF) — has moved on to the U.S. military academies. It raised eyebrows August 29 when it revealed that there’s a hooded, rifle-toting, bronze figure labeled “Ku Klux Klan” adorning the science building at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

Unlike the nine Confederate-named Army bases scattered across what used to be the Confederacy, most of which were so named between the two world wars, the KKK figure went on display in 1965. Because the Naming Commission is responsible only for Confederate names, it merely brought the image to the Pentagon’s attention in its second (PDF) of three reports on the topic. “The commission encourages the Secretary of Defense to address DoD assets that highlight the KKK in Defense Memorialization processes and create a standard disposition requirement for such assets,” the panel said.

West Point said the KKK figure is a small part (PDF) of a much larger bas-relief triptych entitled “History of the United States of America.” The artwork, the academy said, highlights “how our nation has flourished despite its tragedies.” But the same display also features four Confederate officers — Commander John Brooke, Lieutenant General Stonewall Jackson, General Robert E. Lee, and Major General J.E.B. Stuart.

Whoda thunk the U.S. Military Academy would be such a target-rich environment for traitors?


U.S. Marines are not props

It was jarring to see a pair of jarheads standing at attention in their dress blues during President Biden’s September 1 speech, where he said U.S. democracy is imperiled by former president Donald Trump and his Make America Great Again allies. One doesn’t have to have any particular political allegiance to know that casting members of the U.S. military as extras during politically loaded remarks is to start down a slippery slope that does not end well.

Politics stops at the water’s edge” was all-but-official U.S. policy for decades. Lawmakers (usually) refrained from criticizing presidential actions on global affairs and didn’t (usually) criticize the commander-in-chief while he was abroad. That began crumbling following the post-9/11 wars.

Now, the military itself has become a White House prop, and both parties are guilty.

Trump did it in 2020 when he swept through Lafayette Park with fatigue-clad Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in tow. Now his successor is making the same mistake. “Giving a speech about democracy in downtown Philadelphia and bringing your own Marines is not something I recall ever seeing,” retired Naval War College professor Tom Nichols wrote in The Atlantic. “Frankly, staging Marines as if they are the president’s Praetorian Guards is the sort of thing Trump would love.”

It reminds The Bunker of what his mother used to say: “If all your friends were jumping off the Pentagon roof, would you jump, too?”


Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently

Civil-military turmoil ahead?

A bipartisan slew of former defense secretaries and top retired generals warn in a September 6 “open letter” in War on the Rocks that the nation’s political polarization could rupture the traditional relationship between the U.S. military and its civilian leaders.

Nearly half… (PDF)

…of Americans believe the U.S. made a mistake when it sent troops to fight in Afghanistan, according to a poll released August 25 by the Veterans and Citizens Initiative.

New spin on “Aim High”

The Air Force is weighing waivers so that recruits who test positive for marijuana use can still enlist, Air Force Times reported August 31.

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