You see glistening mermaid sightings on Animal Planet more than you catch glimpses of vintage John McCain on Capitol Hill. But there he was Tuesday, succinctly saying what needed to be said about the scourge of sexual assault cases in the military.
Looking grimly at the ribbon-bedecked white male heads of all the services, testifying before the Armed Services Committee, McCain scolded: "Just last night a woman came to me and said her daughter wanted to join the military and could I give my unqualified support for her doing so. I could not."
Are women who want to join the military now more afraid of being raped by their brothers in arms than dying for their country? The seven women on the committee are driving the mission to curb the plague of sexual transgressions in the military, with 26,000 service men and women assaulted in 2012.
"Women are not going to be turned away on this one," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told me.
But men on both sides of the aisle were also pressing the top generals and admirals, even though some, like Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., still seemed to be getting up to speed on the issue.
"Several years ago, when we had the first females go out on an aircraft carrier that when they returned to port," Chambliss said he recalled, "a significant percentage of those females were pregnant." Was any investigation done, he asked, to determine whether those pregnancies were the result of "consensual acts"?
The brass agreed there was a "cancer" in the military, but their rigid, nonsensical response boiled down to: Trust us. We'll fix the system, even though we don't really believe it's broken.
They were unanimously resistant to the shift that several of our allies have made, giving lawyers, rather than commanders, the power to take cases to court. This even though they were having a hard time coming up with examples of any commanders who had been removed from their posts for allowing a toxic climate on sexual assault.
In fact, the military honchos made it clear that, after months of public dismay, they hadn't even gotten around to studying the systems our allies put in place to achieve objective decision-making, where commanders can't protect buddies or Top Gun criminals. "Talking to people who have managed this problem longer than we have seems to me the very easiest place to start," chided Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, told me the arguments of the brass "boiled down to an almost mystical notion of the commanders' responsibility. Why can't we cut the strings to the British system we inherited from George III? The British are baffled by us. They gave control over major crimes to professional prosecutors years ago. It's an institutional structure that has outlived its utility and credibility."