A failure of leadership

unwanted sexual contact


Today on MSNBC’s Meet the Press, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was on to shill his new book, Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life. David Gregory1 began the interview by asking Rumsfeld about the military sexual assault problem, and the exchange went like this:


David Gregory: I want to ask you about a very disturbing subject within the military that you’ve worked over for so long, and that is sexual assaults in the military. Some of the reported cases when you were secretary and reported and estimates, a much larger number and the alarming rise between 2010 and 2012. And the issue at hand here is: What should the military do about it? Does it have to change the way these crimes are reported at the chain of command and go outside of that to a special prosecutor? What would you do?

Donald Rumsfeld: I don’t know that a special prosecutor is the answer, but there is an argument that can be made for handling them in a way different than they’re being handled because they’re serious. And I would suspect that an awful lot of them don’t even get reported. That’s probably true in the private sector, private citizens as well as in the military. But it’s a terrible thing. There has to be zero tolerance. And it appears that something different is going to have to be done, and I wish I knew what the answer was. I don’t. People simply have to not tolerate it.

David Gregory: What about the culture in the military? Is that a major part of contributing to it?

Donald Rumsfeld: People talk about that, and about athletic teams and male environments. I don’t know the answer to that. There’s certainly nothing about the military that would contribute to it in terms of the purpose of the armed forces. But I don’t know the answer and I think they better really land all over people that are engaged in any kind of abuse of that nature.


I was impressed by Rumsfeld’s candor, but for all the wrong reasons, and one right reason. The one right reason I was impressed is because when someone doesn’t know something, I would much rather hear them say, “I don’t know,” rather than try to bullshit their way out of it. Overall, that was his answer to questions about the ongoing problem of sexual assault in the military: I don’t know.

However, that’s also where it starts to get impressive for the wrong reasons. Rumsfeld is a former Naval Officer, Congressman, NATO Ambassador, and Secretary of Defense. If he doesn’t know, then who the fuck does know? If, for all of his accomplishments and credentials, he cannot figure out a solution to the problem of military sexual assault, then he needs to shut up and go home. Stop writing books about leadership, because he doesn’t know how to lead. If he cannot understand the persistent threat plaguing a significant proportion of the military population, he cannot call himself an expert on leadership when he so blatantly failed the very people he was supposed to lead. This was not a new problem when Rumsfeld assumed office in 2001 (Tailhook2 and Aberdeen3 had already happened), and it’s not a new problem now.

In the last two weeks, three people who were supposed to lead the fight against sexual assault in the military4, 5, 6 have all been arrested for varying degrees of sexual misconduct. An Air Force pilot who was convicted in a jury courts-marshal7 of sexual misconduct had his conviction overturned by a superior officer and continues to serve at full rank and pay. And the stories just go on and on, all of them just as alternately heartbreaking and angering. By just looking at the numbers, the Pentagon’s own survey estimates that there are 70 assaults8 a day. This is, at best, an exhibition of incompetent leadership, and at worst, and abdication of leadership.

In the research I have been doing, I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem of sexual violence has gone on for so long because it was never seen as a problem until the civilian world told them it was. In the military view, if someone was assaulted, it was their fault for being weak; and if they reported it, it was their fault for being a whiner. And weak whiners have to be disposed of in order to maintain a strong, well-structured military9.

I know I’m oversimplifying to an absurd degree, but until this problem is solved, I will continue to return to this topic. There is simply no excuse for a failure of this magnitude, our service members deserve better. To give an idea of just how bad the problem is I’ll end with this: I was reading an article of female Syrian refugees10 recently. In the camps, there’s no light at night, so they fear for their personal safety if they have to use the bathrooms. Back in 2007, I read11 the exact same thing about our female troops in Iraq.


military assault


  1. MSNBC: Meet the Press http://www.nbcnews.com/id/3032608/vp/51932144#51932144
  2. New York Times: Revisiting the Military’s Tailhook Scandal http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/13/booming/revisiting-the-militarys-tailhook-scandal-video.html?_r=0
  3. Re: Aberdeen http://www.amazon.com/GAMe-Unraveling-Military-Sex-Scandal/dp/1592989969/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1369004238&sr=1-1&keywords=the+game+aberdeen
  4. The Daily Beast: Air Force General Blames Increase in Military Rape on Hookup Culture http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/05/08/air-force-general-blames-increase-in-military-rape-on-hookup-culture.html
  5. USA Today: Suspect in Fort Hood prostitution ring identified http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/05/15/mcqueen-suspect-fort-hood-prostitution-ring/2163045/
  6. USA Today: Fort Campbell sexual harassment manager arrested http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/05/16/fort-campbell-sexual-harassment-manager-arrested/2182437/
  7. CNN Security Clearance: General defends court martial reversal in sex assault case http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2013/04/11/general-defends-court-martial-reversal-in-sex-assault-case/
  8. Raw Story: Pentagon survey: More than 70 military sexual assaults occur per day http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/05/07/pentagon-survey-more-than-70-military-sexual-assaults-occur-per-day/
  9. My San Antonio: In the military, sex assault victims labeled mentally ill and drummed out http://www.mysanantonio.com/default/article/In-the-military-sex-assault-victims-labeled-as-4526251.php
  10. RH Reality Check: Stoking Fire: Addressing the Specific Needs of Female Refugees http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2013/05/17/stoking-fire-addressing-the-specific-needs-of-female-syrian-refugees/
  11. Salon: The private war of women soldiers http://www.salon.com/2007/03/07/women_in_military/

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