THE FAILURE of U.S. Air Force leadership to ensure the safety of the cadets at its academy is as dishonorable as it is indefensible. While the world watches America flex its military might, the dirty secret is that it does not or cannot protect its best and brightest from each other's worst instincts. Hardly the making of heroes.
Air Force leaders acknowledge 54 reports of rape or sexual assault at the academy during the past 10 years and the sad certainty that there were many more: The climate of intimidation and abuse of power, an institutional culture of covering up alleged crimes and hazing -- all of these ensured that many women abused on campus did not report it.
Women who allege they've been sexually assaulted in their rooms at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs say they've also been intimidated, penalized, harassed, subjected to charges and in some cases run out of the military when they complained. Some say new cadets are routinely warned by other women of the possibility of rape and the need to keep silent if it happens.
They are victims not once, but three times: First by the fellow cadets who attacked them, again by superiors who did not properly investigate their reports, and a third time by top brass, whose effort to install reforms in 1993 -- including the creation of a cadet-run rape hotline -- was a failure.
Yet no one should be made a scapegoat because "this regrettable situation has resulted from a climate at the academy that has evolved over time," a spokesman for the Air Force secretary and chief of staff said last week. That is nonsense.
Justice must include taking responsibility for this leadership failure and may require an independent inquiry, if the widening military investigations are no more effective at leading to reform than past efforts.
What has become evident is that until the highest-ranking officers make zero-tolerance policies real and not lip service, and until rapists -- not victims -- are drummed from the ranks, the military is shamefully doomed to repeat its mistakes.
What's lacking also is the surest understanding by Air Force leaders that now, as the prospect of war looms, service members who have been abused by their peers and superiors -- and the abusers -- may soon be called on to watch each other's backs. How can such a breach of trust be tolerated? Why aren't rapists within the academy deemed as dangerous to the military's mission as enemies of the state?