Last week Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh committed the cardinal sin of telling Senators the truth about a politically charged subject in an open subcommittee session. Welsh suggested that one reason the military has trouble preventing sexual assault is the values of the society from which young soldiers, sailors and airmen come. Needless to say, he suffered the traditional fate of messengers who deliver unwanted news. Politicians and pundits quickly began posturing, deriding his comments about America’s hookup culture and blaming him for what is, at base, a manifestation of primate behavior evolved over many millions of years.
Few of his critics understand what contemporary culture is really like when it comes to sexual mores. People in their teens and twenties are bombarded constantly with sexual stimuli, mainly because it helps sell products. As one sage advertising executive observed in the 1920s, “sex sells.” That observation has become the dominant mantra in modern marketing, and every facet of popular culture reflects it. If you think the way young people behave isn’t influenced by the hundreds of sexual stimuli that advertisers and entertainers send their way each day, then you are really out of touch. Or maybe just old.
Of course, the mantra only works because people, especially young people, have sex drives waiting to be activated. Not surprisingly, an institution like the military, which consists mainly of young people, is going to have more trouble regulating sexual behavior than one that consists mainly of old people like the Senate. But the issue is present to some degree in every age group. Remember when conservatives wanted to impeach Bill Clinton for perjury arising out of sexual impropriety, and every senior Republican associated with the case seemed to have some instance of infidelity in his background? Edward Gibbon informs us that of the first 15 Roman emperors, “Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct.” That insight has less to do with Rome than human nature.
My point here is not to excuse the gross abuses of authority committed by a handful of military personnel in leveraging their positions for sexual gratification. What I’m suggesting is that we try to keep the issue in perspective and not blame the military for a problem that has been commonplace across time and culture. Outsiders have a tendency to focus on issues in the ranks like suicide or assault without ever asking the key question, is the problem really worse in the military than elsewhere? The statistics usually indicate that uniformed personnel as a group are better behaved than their fellow citizens, despite the unique stresses associated with military life.
Military personnel can’t avoid being subjected to harsher scrutiny than other professions, because they are part of the government. But before we start tinkering with one of the most popular and successful institutions that America has produced, we ought to develop a better understanding of how widespread the problem is that we wish to address. Once we get beyond a handful of shocking cases — the kind of aberrations that every large group of humans will occasionally produce — what we may discover is that the military is better at regulating undesirable behavior than other institutions or professions. Or maybe not. Either way, let’s not just default to our prejudices in assigning blame before we have a firmer grasp of the issue.
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