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Opening Arguments

Chains of command

This is a tough one:

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, and top officers from each branch of the military will comment on legislation meant to stem a rise in sexual assault cases.

According to letters sent to the committee, and obtained by Reuters, top brass supported some important curbs but appeared concerned about taking away too much power from commanders.

One measure they are likely to balk at is Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's proposal to take responsibility for prosecuting sex crimes out of the victim's chain of command altogether and give it to special prosecutors.

"Victims need to know that their commander holds offenders accountable, not some unknown third-party prosecutor," wrote General James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, in his letter dated May 17.

At least I don't see an easy answer. On the one hand, it's obvious the military hasn't been able to get a handle on the problem -- people in charge of handling sexual assault and abuse cases have beee accused, for goodness sake. On the other hand, taking sex crimes entirely out of the chain of command would not seem to inspire the kind of unit cohesiveness needed for military readiness.

Certainly the top leadership of the military have always been civilian, up to and including the commander in chief, and that's the way it should be. But their mission is to provide the ultimate authority, not to be the arbiters of day-to-day command decisions.

Dealing with military culture is tricky. We want to make our armed forces conform with contemporary standards of decent behavior, but we also have to continue letting them do things that would be unacceptable in civilian life. The military is able to defend our freedom only by not allowing so much of it for its members.