US military acts to halt battle of sexes

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Britain's armed forces are bringing the sexes together but, chastened by its own experiences, the US is thinking again. Andrew Marshall reports from Washington

GI JOE is back. The toy known as Action Man in Britain, which was deeply unfashionable for so many years, is back on the shelves as an adult toy - sold in limited editions, with special spiffy uniforms.

But GI Joe can't play with GI Jane. That is the view of some of the distinguished men and women of the US Congress, who are trying to make sure that when Americans train for the military, they keep their fingers on their triggers.

The US military has become one of the most integrated professional forces in the world since 1993, when President Clinton cut away a screed of rules that kept women out of key positions. Now, women account for about 20 per cent of the strength of all the armed forces. They fly fighters and bombers, they serve on warships as gunnery officers, and 80 per cent of all jobs are open to them. They cannot (as yet) serve in the tightly confined spaces of submarines, where hot bunking is the rule, and they can't be Navy SEALs, Demi Moore notwithstanding. But everything else, they can and do.

Yet the rise and rise of women in uniform has been accompanied by scandal. The war between the sexes in the US military has become one of its key conflicts over the past few years, with sexual behaviour sometimes seeming as threatening to the Pentagon as Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The Navy was torn apart in 1991 by the Tailhook affair, when a gathering of naval aviators in Las Vegas got out of hand, spilling over into public sex and the harassment of women. The Army has had its problems, too, notably with accusations of assault and sexual harassment at the Aberdeen training ground in Maryland, and the scandals surrounding Sergeant Major Gene McKinney, the most senior enlisted man. The Air Force's first woman bomber pilot, Lieutenant Kelly Flynn, was dismissed from the service for fraternisation and committing adultery, and then lying about it. Just yesterday, five naval offciers were accused of sexual misconduct and having improper relationships with female cadets at the Navy's only boot camp, the Great Lakes Naval Training Centre, north of Chicago.

Not all of this, by any means, can be laid at the door of sexual integration. The Tailhook affair would have happened whether or not women were allowed into the military, and several of the scandals have concerned adulterous liaisions that went on outside the services. But the proliferation of problems and the headline grabbing stories of servicemen behaving badly have inevitably sparked a backlash.

This week, the House National Security Committee shot back. It voted for separate barracks and separate training for men and women, the first indication that the rumble of unhappiness might break out into a war. The kissing has to stop, the committee said: let the shooting start. "All we're trying to do," said Gene Taylor, a Mississippi Democrat, who is one of the key backers of the move, "is get basic training back to basic training, not social experimentation." Roscoe Bartlett, a Maryland Republican, tried to block mixed training last year but got nowhere; now his time may be coming, as support for the measure gathers steam Mixing the military is something, he says, which "in 5,000 years of recorded history, no successful military has done".

The Spartans, of course, while maintaining an all-male military, were quite keen on having them get as closely acquainted as possible, on the basis that soldiers who had learnt to love each other would fight together more effectively. But this is probably an argument that President Clinton won't want to get into, with memories of the damaging battles over homosexuality in the military and "Don't ask, don't tell," still fresh in the memory.

"Don't Talk, Don't touch," is the new rubric. But that doesn't go far enough for opponents of integration, who want to roll back what they see as politically motivated meddling with the military. "The purpose of basic training is not to advance a civilian feminist agenda, or to teach men and women to get along, but to impose a cultural shock that transforms young civilians... into uniformed members of the armed forces," said Elaine Donnelly, the head of the Center for Military Readiness, a Michigan interest group that focuses on the presence of women and homosexuals in the military.

This is only the first skirmish, of course, and the legislation has a long way to go before it passes into law. The military themselves are adamantly opposed to the idea of re-segregating the services, arguing that it makes no sense and will weaken the fighting capability of the units concerned.

Officials at the Great Lakes Training Centre yesterday insisted that male and female recruits could be trained together at the same base. "I think it's a very good thing because we currently have a fleet that is operating successfully today with men and women working together as a team," said Rear Adm. Kevin Green, the Great Lakes commander.

There is a set of practical issues involved here, of course. For instance, a task force earlier this year pointed out that trying to target training at both men and women may make things too tough for some of the women, and not tough enough for some of the men. "Men were not attaining their full potential because they were not being physically challenged enough, and women were suffering injuries at far greater rate than men," says Ms Donnelly.

But the real problem, undoubtedly, in the minds of opponents of integration is sexual. "Coed training and sleeping arrangements have led to rampant sexual indiscipline," said Ms Donnelly.

In the end, it all boils down to that favourite old instruction of British Army Sergeants: hands off cocks, on with socks.