Over the past decade, the U.S. military has faced controversies surrounding soldier suicide, cultural sensitivity in theater, veteran unemployment and now sexual harassment and assault. To me, the most recent scandal — the revelation that Sergeant First Class Michael McClendon allegedly filmed female cadets in the shower at my alma mater, West Point — illustrates an inherent problem in how the military handles such matters.
Having served in the Army through many of these scandals, I know that it will likely respond to the latest crisis by implementing training programs. But the truly horrific feature of these recent incidents of sexual harassment and assaults is that very few are peer on peer; many involve a leader (or counselor) targeting a female subordinate, exercising an outrageous abuse of power. One suspect, a sergeant at Fort Hood, was even a coordinator for the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program. McClendon, the suspect in the West Point case, wasn’t some impressionable 18-year-old kid. He was a grown man with a decade of military experience in charge of 140 other cadets. A training session would not have stopped his actions, nor will it stop future incidents from happening.
The only way to keep bad leaders from sexually harassing and assaulting their subordinates is to keep them from being leaders in the first place. This requires an overhaul in how the military selects and promotes its ranks. Currently, most officers and noncommissioned officers are on “autopromote” based on time in service. In the few instances where candidates are further screened, they’re given an Officer Evaluation Report that assesses only operational and training fitness. The reports don’t assess a leader’s relationships with peers or subordinates. More important, there is no context in which a peer or subordinate can officially provide input on a leader’s performance that will follow them through their career. So it would be very plausible that a soldier performing decently well could retain his poor character as he (or she) climbs through the ranks, and potential sexual predators are promoted simply because their time has come.
Disturbed by officer misconduct, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has recently proposed implementing 360-degree performance evaluations whereby subordinates would be able to weigh in and a candidate’s character would also come under scrutiny. Making tough calls in the face of adversity is something our military does very well, and I hope the U.S. Army will leverage that fortitude in curbing this and other cultural plagues. The challenge is that culture cannot be “issued” to subordinates like a uniform; institutional culture is something that builds from bottom to top. Implementing 360-degree evaluations will fly against centuries of military tradition, and would inherently call foul on the promotion mechanisms that elevated our current leaders in the first place. But it’s the only way for our soldiers to bring forth the problems they see in our ranks that senior leaders cannot.