For the last several years, the Air Force has assiduously pursued one of its organizational goals with unswerving persistence. No, not the goal of reducing and working toward the elimination of sexual assault in the ranks. That would be a valid objective likely to generate strong, sensible policies.
Instead, the Air Force has pursued the objective of appearing to cherish the goal of eliminating sexual assault in the ranks. The main vehicle for this grand gambit of “virtue signaling” has been its Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program.
Aboard this chariot of the abyss, the service has managed to make a joke out of a serious issue without actually doing enough to solve the underlying problem. In fact, in a number of ways, it has aggravated the issue by corroding communication while creating new problems making it more difficult to prevent criminality and victimization. This has come about through three principal sins, each committed by or with the approval of commanders who (should) know better.
First sin: issue confusion. When something is important, keep it as simple as possible. Sexual assault is a crime. Prosecuting it to the fullest extent of the law is the best way to affirm the dignity of victims, deter potential offenders, and create a climate intolerant of victimization. There is also an educational component to prevention — one which alerts everyone to some of the warning signs that someone is in danger of being sexually victimized or suffering from the effects of sexual trauma.
Today’s Air Force has eschewed such clarity in favor of appearing to leave no stone unturned. This has led to the turning of too many stones, including some that support the weight of its entire organization.
The result is a Kafkaesque climate that is sexually repressive while at the same time weirdly immodest in its constant discussion of what should be the most personal of personal subjects. Sexual assault prevention, as an effort, has grown to encompass too much, morphing into a nondescript mass of ballast in lieu of a strong policy approach. The weight of that ballast is debilitating the Air Force a little more every day.
The service has eliminated critical distinctions between various forms of conduct. Sexual assault is different from sexual harassment, which is in turn different from social awkwardness, inappropriateness, or workplace shenanigans. All of these are distinct from consensual sex between adults. By allowing SAPR to occupy the driver’s seat instead of forcing its commanders and their legal advisors to address this problem in a sober and apolitical manner, the Air Force has basically criminalized looking askance at someone if they manage to feel victimized while also criminalizing healthy and constructive relationships where no one was victimized.
By letting SAPR run the entire conversation, the Air Force has imported the “illiberal liberality” resident in some corners of the social justice movement into its service culture, corrupting teamwork and dissolving the bonds of communication and esprit required to fight and win wars.
Sexual assault a violent crime that deserves a serious law enforcement approach. More investigators, more and better qualified prosecutors, more and better qualified victim counselors and advocates, and better legal education for commanders would be promising policy ideas for addressing this issue.
Instead, the Air Force has adopted an institutional attitude criminalizing and condemning any conduct, real, alleged, or (mostly) hypothetical, carrying even the faintest whiff of sexual impropriety. The results are absurd and pervasive, from confused and poisoned juries who equate fraternization with rape to overzealous and politically jaundiced prosecutors and convening authorities to hog-tied commanders who perceive no meaningful latitude when it comes to deciding whether and how severely to respond to sex-themed allegations of any kind.
The justice process has oscillated violently from neglecting and failing to honor the protection of victims to neglecting and failing to honor the protections afforded to the accused. It’s a sign of arbitrariness, which reflects political rather than principled motives. It also validates what many have argued for a long time now: that the Air Force isn’t capable of responsibly conducting its own legal system. This is the case because it’s not an organization governed by laws, principles, and values so much as a node of government power led by morally flexible bureaucrats galloping between and among fashionable causes, some internally cherished and others externally compelled.
The second sin, fueled by the first, is constant browbeating. Every day, airmen are obliged to consume an endless onslaught of messaging reminding them of the issue. They can’t eat their breakfast, do their jobs, or walk from one side of the base to the other without being bombarded.
This is designed to “raise awareness,” it is said. But what it really does, after a rapidly-reached point of null returns, is a host of others things. For example, it makes people deaf and numb to the issue, fatigued by its omnipresence. Even if SAPR is someone’s favorite song, listening to it on a perpetual loop is a recipe to end up hating it. Once that point is reached, it’ll not only be removed from the playlist, but deleted from the library. This is what’s happening with SAPR. Airmen are getting alienated, starting with those who only need to be told something important once. When SAPR speaks, they may appear to be nodding along … but they’re actually engaging in active aversion, retreating to a mental happy place as far away from SAPR as possible.
This is a counter-productive outcome, but it’s not the worst consequence of browbeating. What’s also happening is that the men of the Air Force, particularly those who are heterosexual, young, and single, are being depicted — and therefore increasingly stereotyped — as a teeming horde of would-be sexual predators lurking for for any chance to strike and actively trying to create opportunities to victimize women. This is dissolving the social fabric of Air Force organizations, where longstanding social traditions are now plagued with risk calculus and kindergarten-level safeguards typical of helicopter parenting. Men are choosing to avoid hanging around with Air Force women for fear they’ve been indoctrinated into the school of SAPR … while Air Force women find themselves preemptively victimized and increasingly isolated. This is all terrible for the sense of togetherness and shared identity core to the wingman concept the current Air Force has mangled into something unrecognizable.
There is a path to an Air Force peopled by proud and capable men and women working and playing alongside one another without tolerating sexual victimization. That path doesn’t run through the land of incessant SAPR message bombardment.
Finally, we have the third sin, and the actual impetus for this article: gimmickry. The Air Force has become a rolling SAPR gag reel. Aliens watching from space would mistake this as our primary mission. There is junk science and rat psychology everywhere, usually emblazoned on taxpayer-funded swag or embellished in ill-conceived publicity stunts that reduce airmen to caricatures of social science theories.
Rather than lament these ridiculous monuments to the principle that “none of us is as dumb as all of us” one at a time on Facebook, we’re going to wrap them into periodic digests for ease of consumption. This is the first volume.
Make no mistake … the objective here is to shame commanders and the bureaucrats throwing them under so many busses. Someone in this institution needs to be the adult and say “No. We’re not going to spend taxpayer funds on something cartoonish and silly and wasteful … especially not on such a serious issue. I’m not going to alienate my airmen while forcing some of them to embarrass themselves just so we can signal that we care about this.”
Of course, the taking of such stands would be far less necessary if the Air Force would (speaking of signals) set the right example at the very top by clarifying, simplifying, and explaining what this issue is and isn’t. Senior leader statements, after all, are much if not most of culture change. They might also restructure the bureaucracy to give SAPR bureaucrats less influence over policy and return commanders to their leadership role on this issue, which lies near the very core of how (and how not) to field a winning team: if teammates can trust one another, anything is possible. If they can’t trust one another, nothing is possible.
On that note, here are a few SAPR fails from the JQP inbox from this past week.
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