Benjamin Myers Photography

Benjamin Myers Photography

Senators Kelly Ayotte (R–NH) and Claire McCaskill (D–MO) and a number of retired female military officers recently urged restraint in changing the military justice system in response to the problem of sexual assault in the military.

The women agreed that sexual misconduct in the military is a serious concern; however, they also agreed that recent calls for breaking down the chain of command would not solve these issues and only damage the structure of the armed forces.

Colonel Ana Smythe, U.S. Marine Corps (retired), argued at the conference, “If we dismantle or weaken the chain of command, we are lost.… Please don’t throw away the structure on which the military is built.” Colonel Lisa Schenck, U.S. Army (retired), a former judge advocate general, added that “if you take out the convening authority from the process, you are essentially gutting the military justice process.”

This debate began when an Air Force judge overturned a sexual assault conviction—which he has authority to do under Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). This article is a critical element of the UCMJ, as it preserves the chain of command and discipline in the armed forces. Heritage’s Cully Stimson and Steven Bucci describe why Congress should use caution when modifying the UCMJ:

There are clear and important distinctions between the civilian and military justice systems, yet some continue to conflate or equate the two systems, thereby evincing a fundamental misunderstanding of the unique and weighty responsibilities endemic to military command.

Stimson and Bucci argue that Congress should instead “mandate the creation of career prosecutors and defense counsel within the respective services combined JAG corps.” This would mirror certain practices in the civilian trial system and provide more experienced and qualified lawyers to both victims and defendants in the military justice system.

While sexual assault is a serious problem within the U.S. military, Congress should not drastically inhibit the chain of command in response. This would do nothing to stop the rate of offenses and inhibit the chain of command, one of the most fundamental elements of an effective military. As Senator Ayotte remarked, “We can’t let commanders off the hook. Taking away their responsibility to act will also make it more difficult to hold them accountable.”