The sex war in black and white

As the US army is shaken by charges - and shock denials - of sexual assault John Carlin asks: can men and women soldiers ever really fight side by side?
White woman makes love with black man. Black man is charged with rape. Months pass, the man stews in jail and the woman says nothing. Until eventually, torn with guilt, she owns up.

It sounds like the plot of a steamy thriller set in 1950s Mississippi, but it is a real life drama being played out now at an army training base in Aberdeen, Maryland. Two of the most perennially controversial social issues in America, race and gender, have clashed head-on following allegations last week that five white female army recruits were pressured into falsely alleging they had been raped by their black superiors.

One of the women, Private Darla Hornberger, 30, stood in uniform before the TV cameras and made a statement that bordered on the heroic. "I have a lot - a lot - to lose by being here," she said. "I have a family, I have children. And I could just keep my mouth shut and this would all go over. But something really wrong has happened."

The story began at the end of last year when the army reported that 50 women at the Aberdeen base had complained of rape, assault or sexual harassment. More than 25 male instructors have been investigated and so far eight have been charged, four of them with rape.

The commanding officer described the epidemic of abuse as the worst thing he had come across in three decades of service. Now it appears as if, in some cases at least, the investigators he appointed set about their task with an excess of martial zeal.

Pte Hornberger said that during extensive questioning by army investigators she never actually told them she had been raped. But the statement she ended up signing conveyed the impression that she had been. "They told me that under the military code of justice that was considered rape." While omitting to expand on what exactly "that" had been, she left no doubt she was referring to an unforced sexual encounter with a superior.

All of which has enlisted the interest of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, America's oldest civil rights organisation. It was NAACP officials, suspecting bias by the army against the accused black men, who persuaded the women to come forward and make their allegations public.

It might be argued that the willingness of some white army women to engage in sexual activity with black soldiers - however offensive to codes of military discipline - is evidence of some warmth in army race relations.

That is not to minimise the problem of genuine sexual abuse.Last November, the army set up a special phone line for soldiers to report sexual offences; senior officers were appalled to discover that within a month more than 6,000 calls had been received. The army is conducting 240 criminal investigations into allegations of rape or sexual assault, and another 292 inquiries are pending.

But when it comes to the race question the army has much to teach civil society. For there is no better equal opportunities employer. Blacks represent 11 per cent of America's population, but 30 per cent of the army as a whole and 12 per cent of the officer corps. A black man, General Colin Powell, rose to occupy the highest military position in the land, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Secretary of the Army, a civilian who functions at Cabinet level in the Clinton White House, is a black man named Togo West.

No less significant is the fact that blacks hold more than half the clerical jobs in the army, while only just over a tenth of "grunts" in the infantry are black.

Racism does, of course, exist in the army, which has been known to harbour some of America's most unreconstructed white zealots. Timothy McVeigh, the ex-soldier charged with the Oklahoma bombing, acquired a rep- utation for discriminating against his black subordinates after he rose to the rank of sergeant.

But the statistics for race in the army speak of a degree of integration unimaginable 40 years ago, when President Truman ordered an end to a long- standing policy of military apartheid. Or even 20 years ago, when the Vietnam war highlighted racial tensions in the army, prompting the high command to put officers through racial awareness courses and issuing stiff new orders prohibiting racial bias.

It would appear that on race and sex, the army operates on a 20-year learning curve. Women were first integrated fully into the army just over two decades ago, but only now, when 68,000 of its 500,000 soldiers are female, is America focusing on a question similar to the one that prompted a re-evaluation of race relations during Vietnam: whether tension between men and women may affect morale and battle-readiness.

Media coverage of the goings- on at the Aberdeen base has prompted the politicians to enter the fray. This month a congressional committee will address such basic questions as whether the goal of equality between the sexes in the army is achievable.

The army will say, we did it with race, we'll do it with gender. But the question remains,even if abuse is stamped out, can an army tolerate consensual sexual relations in the ranks?

If not then the army will be faced with a challenge that may end up defeating its legendary powers of coercion. How do you restrain fit, healthy young men and women from doing what comes naturally?