Criticism of the U.S. general in Iraq who wants to punish soldiers who get or get someone pregnant led him to retreat. But the topic of coed military operations should command attention - and the discussion should include sexual assaults.
Maj. Gen. Anthony A. Cucolo 3d issued a general order in November that prohibited soldiers under his command from becoming pregnant or impregnating another soldier. "I believe there should be professional consequences for making a choice like that," he said, explaining that pregnant soldiers must be reassigned, which reduces his combat strength.
"I consider the male soldier as responsible for taking a soldier out of the fight," said Cucolo. But critics still accused him of being insensitive to women, perhaps even pushing some toward abortion.
Gen. Raymond Odierno, commanding general in Iraq, has since issued a superseding general order that does not list pregnancy as a punishable offense. But Cucolo had already taken action against seven soldiers, four women and three men. The male soldier who avoided punishment wasn't identified by the female soldier he impregnated.
The punishment consisted mostly of letters of reprimand. Cucolo backed off earlier comments that suggested offenders of his rule should be court-martialed.
The general's ham-handed effort to attack fraternization in a war zone has become grist for comedians. But the seriousness of the topic goes beyond pregnancy to the rapes and other sexual assaults that also have become more prevalent with today's male and female soldiers working and living in closer proximity.
The Defense Department reported an 8 percent increase in reported sexual assaults for fiscal 2008, but it also acknowledged that probably less than 10 percent of the attacks that occur are actually reported. So, multiply the 2,908 reported cases by 10 to get a truer picture.
To encourage more victims to come forward, the Pentagon created a "restricted reporting" option that allows them to remain anonymous. There were 753 restricted reports last year, a 7 percent increase. The hope is that the anonymous will one day come forward to have their cases adjudicated, but last year only 15 percent did that.
Still, the number of cases going to courts-martial did increase last year to 38 percent of the 832 investigated cases that were brought before commanders. That compares with 30 percent of 600 investigated cases in fiscal 2007. The difference between the number of allegations and court cases shows that the military has the same difficulty as civilian authorities with sexual assault charges, especially when it's a case of "he said, she said."
An increase in reported sexual assaults among U.S. troops in Iraq, to 143 from 112 the year before, is cause for alarm. A soldier who can't trust the man beside him makes a poor soldier. It is important for commanders to make it clear that combat is no excuse for criminal behavior.
The American military isn't going to go backward. We can expect women to take on more roles that place them side by side with men. They can do the job, but their commanders must make sure they are treated with the respect that engenders the confidence that all soldiers must have.