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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Serial 2:5

In the most recent episode of Serial, Sarah Koenig argues that the military (for that matter, the nation) really wasn’t doing everything it could to search for Bergdahl, even though officials were publically saying that they were doing everything they could to find him. She offers several reasons for this, and I discuss some of those below the fold. 

To me, the really interesting reason is the one related to victim-blaming. Koenig implies that officials of all ranks may have intentionally sidelined his case because they blamed Bergdahl for putting himself in his situation.  Maybe this is a reflection on my beliefs about human nature, but I am not going to presume that those officials made those statements in good faith. Without more evidence, I won’t jump from victim blaming to intentional inaction. 

I will make the jump from victim blaming to unintentional inaction, though.

We have seen this before in the military – in the sexual assault arena. The military has been under sustained and serious criticism about its handling of sexual assaults for over two decades, and the standard reply has been, “We take this seriously and are doing everything we can to stop the problem.”  I also take those statements at face value and believe that the people making those statements about macro-level policy honestly believe what they are saying. 

However, at the micro-level – at the level of a particular case – I think that the people in the military are often unconsciously influenced by the behaviors of the victim in that particular case (and also can’t believe that a good soldier would rape someone). When looking at that case, they decide not to take action in that case.  (They will certainly take action when the “right” case comes along).  When we add up those cases, we see a system that does not take the problem seriously.

I talk more about that here and I test that theory here.  It turns out that those who run the military justice system are much more conservative and hold more traditional gender role beliefs than the general public.  That may not be a surprise, but the degree of difference should be.  The following tables are modified from those articles.  In the first one, the respondents were asked whether they agree that it is better for women should stay at home rather than go into the workforce.  The y-axis is percent.



Those are pretty big differences, and those differences likely matter. It turns out that both of those markers can predict how people process sexual assault cases.  Beliefs about traditional gender roles includes a facet of sexual conservatism, and conservatism includes social conservatism as a facet, which itself includes a sexual conservatism facet.    The simplified idea is that when women do not behave in a sexually conservative manner, then they are blamed for that behavior (and when men pursue sex, they are not) and that leads to outcome judgments that favor the man. 

Using data from a study done by Jason Dempsey (he was interviewed in Serial 2:2) and from the Triangle Institute for Strategic Studies, I was able to model Dan Kahan’s data from Culture, Cognition, and Consent to predict that if the military decision makers were given a dorm room an acquaintance rape case, they would be about 10% more likely than the general public to find the man not guilty.  My broader conclusion was that the people who are looking at those cases think they are taking these cases seriously, but they are unconsciously biased toward one side.

In Bergdahl’s case, the belief systems are somewhat different but also include victim blaming. Instead of deciding whether to take action in a case, here the commander is deciding how to spend resources.  A commander with limited resources who is given a tough choice between two missions may be unconsciously biased to apply the resources to the other mission – the one that does not involve looking for Bergdahl.  When those decisions happen over and over, then we see no action taken on his case.

According to Koenig, this victim blaming has influenced the nation’s response to other hostages, not just Bergdahl. She may be right, but I think the actors are genuinely trying to do the right thing.  The bias comes in subtly. 

(I expect that the military’s unique population will also impact how a court-martial might process Bergdahl’s mental health evidence. Hopefully Koenig will circle back to that topic soon.)

On to the other reasons she offers.  A primary reason was government bureaucracy: too many institutions were tasked with the general personnel recovery mission; all of them were underfunded; none of them were talking to each other; and none knew which was primarily responsible for a particular case – like Bergdahl’s.  Those problems sound a lot like the problems discovered within the pre-9/11 intelligence apparatus, and I expect a useful reform would be to centralize the personnel recovery mission.

Another potentially surprising reason was the resource constraints – in that the most powerful nation on Earth actually has some. For example, the people looking for Bergdahl couldn’t get very much drone time.  This didn’t surprise me, though.  When I was in Afghanistan in 2003, the war in Iraq had just started and we were competing for resources with the forces over there – and we usually lost.  Both missions were important, but there just weren’t enough national assets to go around. 

Koenig kept coming back to the point that officials were saying that they were doing everything they could to find Bergdahl, and my sense from her story-telling is that she understood that to mean that they were promising that every national asset would be used trying to find him. I don’t think that is a fair characterization.  There were lots of other important things going on in the world that were competing for those same assets.  I think that what these officials were really saying is that they were doing everything they could within the resource constraints they had. 

Another reason was the difficult, complex relationship between the United States and Pakistan, and within the Pakistani government, the competing internal power structures.  Koenig did a pretty good job explaining how sticky that situation was (and continues to be).

Whew – just under the wire. The next episode is this Thursday.  I hope to have a quicker turnaround for that one.

Posted by Eric Carpenter on February 2, 2016 at 06:21 PM | Permalink


Hello Peter,
It has been a long time since Fort Bragg. I have followed your career closely and am pleased with what you have accomplished from your beginnings.


Posted by: Allen Tidwell | Feb 25, 2016 9:46:19 PM

Nice to hear from you, Colonel Brownback. We have a "seven degrees of separation connection" to Kreutzer.

I short-handed the definition for the blog post. Those numbers come from a survey taken from students at the staff colleges, war colleges, and Capstone. That population ultimately produces the staff judge advocates and convening authorities. I go over that in more depth in the second article.

I'm not saying that that population will serve on panels and acquit. I'm looking at that population because it produces those that make the prosecutorial decisions in these cases. My argument is that those in that population are more likely than the general public to look at the case and think the man is not guilty, and so would be less likely to refer the case. I do look at another population (I didn't mention that population in the post) that would represent those who would serve on panels, and the results are about the same, although closer to the general population.

My concern is that these populations are overrepresented by people who, when they look at a case at the micro-level, may be influenced by inaccurate beliefs about sexual assaults (i.e., rape myths) and so won't process the cases as accurately as they could.

My ultimate conclusions is that commanders should stay in charge of the military justice system, but need to have pretty exhaustive training (more than what they get right now) before they act on these cases.

Posted by: Eric Carpenter | Feb 3, 2016 8:24:35 AM

I am somewhat confused by your use of the term "senior military". Do you mean GOs, O-6's, O-5's, E-9's, E-8's, or what?

Further, I believe that you confuse the issue when you imply that "senior military" run the military justice system and that they would be more likely than the general public to acquit a soldier charged with barracks room rape. While many convening authorities are one-, two-, or three-star generals, the incidence of someone above the grade of O-6 serving on a panel is miniscule. And the senior (one-star plus) convening authorities certainly decide whether a case will be referred to court-martial, but they have nothing to do with the investigation, prosecution, or defense of the case.

Does every case come down to the micro level? I hope so. I don't want a soldier, male or female, prosecuted unless the immediate commander, the trial counsel, the staff judge advocate, and the convening authority believe that there was a crime committed and that the person charged committed the crime. Will these beliefs be based on their knowledge of the soldier and the alleged offense? I hope so.

Posted by: Peter E. Brownback III | Feb 2, 2016 10:03:58 PM

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