‘Unlawful Command Influence,’ an Obama facepalm moment … more like Obama shoots himself in the foot, what was he thinking?
“I expect consequences, so I don’t just want more speeches or awareness programs or training, but ultimately folks look the other way. If we find out somebody’s engaging in this, they’ve got to be held accountable – prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period.”
This is what President Obama had to say earlier this year when discussing sexual assault in the US military. Harsh words indeed, and they resonate with those who oppose rape culture. I can only but agree, rape is a terrible crimes, and should be dealt with harshly. There’s never any excuse for sexual assault, claiming a woman was “asking for it” is saying the perpetrator was a goddamn starving monkey offered a banana. We are better than that, animal nature is no excuse for any other crime, why should it be an excuse for rape? “But judge, all those people in the bank were counting money in plain sight! I’m poor and I couldn’t help myself!” Yeah, right. I’ve said even harsher things than the president about rapists myself, I suspect most people have.
However, I’m not the Commander-in-Chief of the US military speaking publicly on the issue. And here we have a problem, a big problem. A problem that made military lawyers blanch when they heard the words above. Let me illustrate. Some soldiers are interrogating suspected terrorists. The king walks by, and clearly in their earshot says that terrorists should just be summarily executed. What do the soldiers do? It doesn’t take much imagination to think that at least in some cases the soldiers would promptly kill the suspects. Their king in as much said they should do so! And if the king wanted them to get fair trials, isn’t that what he would have said? What the king said is called, in legal parlance, ‘Unlawful Command Influence.’ A commander who makes “suggestions” about how a situation should handled is unduly influencing his underlings, whether he meant to or not. And president Obama did just that, he suggested in the strongest possible terms what the punishment for this offence should be. Will people in the military be influenced by this, or is this purely an academic discussion?
Alas, it’s not. Defence lawyers have raised the issue of ‘Unlawful Command Influence’ in a military trial of two service members, and the judge in the case issued a ruling. He ruled that if the two defendants were found guilty, they could not be punished with a dishonourable or bad conduct discharge because of what the president said. Oh dear. Two guys might get convicted of sexual assault, but they will get a slap on the wrist. I’m pretty sure that isn’t what Obama intended. OK, somewhat sure. He is a lawyer, so he has to know he needs to be careful of what he says in public. And he’s been CinC of the US military for more than four years. So one would think he would be aware that he needs to be careful with what he says about the military justice system. That’s just the first, and to me the most perplexing aspect of this. Did Obama make a mistake by accident … or design?
The other aspect to this situation is how the left and anti rape culture activists responded to this. They were outraged, at least from my less-than-scientific survey of the scene. The typical attitude I encountered was that Obama had the right to say what he said, and that this was a perversion of justice. Well, correct on both counts. Obama has the right to say pretty much any damn thing he pleases, so what? Just because someone has the right to say something doesn’t mean it was a good idea to say. Another tiresome misuse of the concept of rights basically. And of course its not just, those guilty of sexual assault should see serious consequences for their misguided decisions. However, this isn’t about justice or the president’s rights, it’s about the law. And in the framework of the law, Obama gave those in the military accused of sexual assault aid and succour. I find it troubling that so many simply defend the president rather than admit he made a tactical error at best.
Most humans seem to be blind to the flaws of their chosen leaders. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing in the evolution of the species remains to be seen I suppose. As one last observation on this sad situation, yes, that a military judge is allowing this defence is probably an example of rape culture. The military is a profoundly misogynistic culture that not only tolerates and defends rape, it actively encourages it sometimes. When I was in the service in the 1970s the career servicemen I knew fondly recalled the good old days of the fifties and sixties when if a service member was accused of rape, he was just transferred to another base in another country and thus immune from prosecution. The same way the Catholic Church handled allegations of child molestation. While there are fine people in uniform, there are plenty of others who see the military as the last bastion of male privilege and are profoundly misogynistic in their world view. Fortunately many people in and out of the military are trying to change that. They have my support.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit, yadda yadda yadda. I don’t even know who the copyright holder is, it’s a pic that’s all over the web. And to end on a more positive note, check out what this Australian general had to say about the problem of sexual assault in their military, Obama should take a cue from him before he propounds on the topic again.)