A woman's place is on the battlefield?


KANSAS CITY -- At a recent Senate hearing, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis Reimer asked that the widening controversy over sexual harassment be separated from the larger issue of gender-mixing in the military. It was a reasonable request: Those guilty of harassment, or worse, should be punished. But at the same time, Congress should take a fresh look at the overall policy of gender integration.

The appropriate way to frame this issue is to start with a quote from one of the policy's long-time advocates, former Colorado Rep. Patricia Schroeder. The structure of the military, she once said, is questionable on the grounds that "it's a top-down hierarchy, and all males at the top."

Indeed it is. The question is whether or not this structure is conducive to the military's basic purpose. Or to put it another way, would it be harmful to transform the military into something other than a top-down, male-dominated hierarchy?

As surprising as it seems, Congress has apparently never confronted the issue from this vantage point. In 1975, when the service academies were opened to women, the issue was framed largely in terms of equality. Women, it was said, had a right to serve. This came during the high tide of the debate over the defunct Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

But women in the military are not being treated as equals. In many cases they are being accommodated via lower standards. In the early '80s, the Army experimented with co-ed recruit training but abandoned the effort as a failure. Many women were unable to keep up, and the men complained about being held back.

Nevertheless, another round of experiments is now under way, this time with a distinct tone of de-machoization. Navy recruits don't run obstacle courses. They run "confidence" courses. The New Republic reports that the Army made two attempts to set up gender-neutral strength standards, but finally scrapped the idea because (as the Army Times reported), studies revealed that "most women couldn't meet the standards proposed for nearly 70 percent of the Army specialties."

Diversity vs. morale

Adam Mersereau, a former Marine lieutenant, recalls an incident in which a woman Marine was told to pick up and carry back a "wounded" comrade during training. She was unable to support the weight of the man, even after he stood up and draped himself across her shoulders.

"That young woman's presence brought diversity to the training field at the cost of a tiny measure of morale, which was lost forever," Mr. Mersereau wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "The Marines who saw her knew that they would perish if they ever had to rely on her in a life-or-death situation."

In combat, chronic laggards who hold back the group endanger the group, and are shunned -- which is also why hazing rituals will never be eliminated. Officers should ensure that the line is not crossed between hazing and sadism, but those seeking membership in the group have a need for the badge of acceptance that hazing confers.

This ethos seems alien to most women, but it helps forge common bonds. Moreover, it is no stretch to say this male-based group dynamic is probably essential to effective performance in the stress of combat. To borrow a phrase often heard these days, many women "just don't get it."

Form of hazing

Boot camp itself is a form of legal hazing. It not only indoctrinates recruits into the military culture, but it also works as a rite of passage, bestowing membership through the age-old process of ordeal, sacrifice and shared experience. Lowering tough standards to advance a politically preferred group sends the unintended message: You're not fully proven.

Worse, the cost of lowered physical standards may someday be counted in casualties.

During my own enlistment, an acquaintance once described the experience of being "walked" by mortars in Vietnam. His unit had been sighted by an enemy spotter -- a scout with a radio who was adjusting the fire of his mortarmen as the Marines desperately scrambled through the jungle, often just ahead of the next batch of rounds. My acquaintance and his unit escaped, but only because every Marine was able to move rapidly in tropical heat while carrying a 50- or 60-pound pack.

Women aren't yet permitted in infantry units, but that is the clear direction of policy. It's time to reconsider. Even if women and men were equal in strength and stamina, a gender-mixing policy would be suspect because of the potential jealousies and resentments that come with it.

In the Army, men and women are sharing barracks. In Bosnia they're even sharing tents. The Navy has its "love boats," and the energies of the military are increasingly devoted to dealing with the consequences of sex and sexual tension.

Certainly, women should have opportunities to serve, but the attempt to use the services as vehicles for social engineering should stop. In a first step toward sanity, Congress should back away from the flawed assumption that gender diversity in the military deserves to be treated as an end in itself.

E. Thomas McClanahan is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.

Pub Date: 6/20/97

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