The Military Fights The Gender Wars

Faced with a clear threat to his position, Lt. Gen. Howard Graves last week did what any smart commander would do: he ordered a pre-emptive strike. Graves is superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. The threat, probably unique in the 192-year history of the institution, was a potential public-relations disaster caused by complaints from women cadets that they had been fondled by army football players during a pep rally on Oct. 20. Graves notified the Pentagon, launched an internal investigation and -- to avert any possible charge of a cover-up -- gave the story to The New York Times. ""Our cadets understand their public-relations functions,'' the general said. ""Openness and candor are best not only for America, but for the cadets too. We've learned the lesson of Tailhook.''

Public relations, as Clausewitz might have said, is the continuation of politics by other means -- and Tailhook, which caused the U.S. Navy its worst embarrassment since Pearl Harbor, was a PR disaster that still has repercussions for all four branches of the military. Megascandals like Tailhook and miniscandals like the West Point group-grope have a unifying thread: the services are still struggling with the implications of gender equality in uniform. Progress, though uneven, is incontestably real. Women soldiers and pilots are serving capably on peacekeeping missions in Somalia, northern Iraq, Rwanda and Haiti. ""These new sorts of operations highlight the role of women in the military much more than conventional combat,'' says Northwestern University sociologist Charles Moskos. Whatever one thinks of America's changing global role, it may well be a boon for military women.

But all social revolutions bring conflict -- and last week the navy seemed to be fighting the gender war on multiple fronts:

Still, Tailhook may be a turning point for all four services. It triggered renewed emphasis on the Pentagon's ""zero tolerance'' policy on sexual harassment and seems to have prompted increased militance among service women. In the air force, for example, sexual-harassment complaints jumped from 361 in 1991 to 736 in 1993. The attitude shift is evident at West Point as well. A 1983 Academy graduate says ""there were incidents that we never mentioned -- you just did not want to draw attention to yourself.'' Today's women cadets are less inclined to suffer in silence. ""They think I don't hear them calling us "bitches','' one woman says angrily -- and others complain about sotto voce remarks from men when women lead the cadets in massed formation. Last week three male cadets got punishments that included suspension from the football team for the pep-rally incident, and Academy officials said the episode showed their anti-harassment policies are working.

The sheer number of women in uniform, meanwhile, suggests that a new era is coming. Fully 24 percent of all air force recruits in 1994 were women, compared with 19 percent for the army, 17 percent for the navy and 5 percent for the marines. The Pentagon's 1993 decision to open selected combat jobs to women is even more critical. Command of a combat unit is the only promotion ladder to top-echelon posts for officers -- which means the new policy will eventually lead to a surge of women officers at the top of the chain of command. Currently, women comprise 16 percent of junior officers in the army, 18 percent in the air force, 14 percent in the navy and 3.4 percent in the marines. But there is a downside. The current trend toward sharply reduced military spending can only make career competition -- and gender tension -- more intense.

Those who study the military mind see an even larger conflict ahead -- a conflict between the male-dominated warrior ethos and the more compassionate values wom-en have traditionally repre-sented. In essence, the U.S. military will profit from the expanding role of women whenever it engages in what sociologist M. Connie Devilbiss calls ""constabulary tasks,'' like keeping the peace in Haiti. But what about war? ""What people don't grasp, I think, is that for the military, those two sorts of tasks provoke profoundly different self-images . . . there is a real tension here,'' Devilbiss says. How that tension is resolved has large implications for all women soldiers -- and, ultimately, for America's global mission as well.