Why the military is still no place for a woman

In the rush to declare the US army an 'equal opportunity' employer, has its very nature been overlooked?
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Delmar Simpson, a 32-year-old drill sergeant at the Aberdeen training centre in Maryland, could well be remembered as the man who reversed US thinking on mixed training in the army. Convicted by a court martial this week on 18 counts of rape - all the victims were female trainees in his charge - he will plead next Monday against a likely sentence of life imprisonment.

If Simpson were just one bad egg in an otherwise professional and disciplined army training system, his case could be dismissed as a regrettable exception. Evidence that emerged during Simpson's investigation and trial, however, suggests something different. He is only the first of at least a dozen Aberdeen drill sergeants facing sexual misconduct charges. And while one senior officer went on record as saying that discipline at Aberdeen was "the worst" he had seen, more than 300 army sex investigations are in progress, involving army training bases across the US.

Responses to the case have been predictably split. To opponents of equal opportunities for women in the armed forces, the Delmar Simpson case seems only to confirm the view that mixing the sexes in the military is asking for trouble. Temptation is put in everyone's way, discipline is put at risk. For supporters of women in the forces, the case only confirms their view that the prevailing atmosphere in the army is hostile to women. They welcomed the trial, and the verdict, as a sign that women recruits' allegations about sexual harassment, and worse, are at last being taken seriously, but they noted that the number of cases still outstanding shows how far there is to go.

In between these straightforward responses, however, lies a host of complexities that reveal what a tangled web the US has woven in mixing army training. The official position is clear. Women recruits can train alongside men and, following a Congress decision of 1988, may take combat roles. However, "fraternisation" across ranks - often a euphemism for sexual relations - is an offence; so is adultery. Punishment ranges from a reprimand and counselling, through dismissal and forfeit of pension, to court martial and prison.

This is the theory. But if only a fraction of the allegations about what went on at the Aberdeen training centre are true - "Consensual sex was rampant at army base", said a Washington Post headline - the clear disciplinarian line was far from being universal practice. The three-month army training course at Aberdeen is said to have been regarded by many recruits, men and women alike, as one long party. Officers speak of finding liquor bottles and used condoms littering dormitory floors when they came on duty each morning. The women, it is said, enjoyed being outnumbered by men. The officers and instructors, who were predominantly male, found themselves in the paradisiacal situation of having almost instant access to young women who were under orders to "obey".

Obedience, though, takes many forms. Evidence given by a dozen or so women trainees to the Aberdeen court martial indicated that some "obeyed" out of fear, others out of ambition. Some admitted to willing compliance. Five who withdrew rape allegations on the eve of the trial said they had "agreed" to sex with Simpson, but had been pressured by investigators to say they had been raped. Army rules give women an infinitely greater incentive to claim rape than to admit to "consensual" sex. The latter is an offence that could end their career; the former, which absolves them of responsibility, ruins only the man's career while leaving their own intact.

While there is no suggestion from the reported evidence that Simpson's trial was anything but fair, it is possible to argue that the court martial jury, consisting of five men (three white, two black) and one woman (white), might have felt under pressure, given the climate of US opinion, not to run scared of a rape conviction. It also seems that the armed forces are applying the rules on sexual relations with a new rigour in an attempt to avoid embarrassing charges of cover-ups (as in the Tailhook sexual harassment incident six years ago, when female navy recruits were made to run a gauntlet of lewd and drunken officers). This throws up hard cases and leaves the forces treading a very fine line between enforcing military discipline for the general good and dictating personal morality for its own sake.

An egregious example is that of Kelly Flinn, at 26 the only woman pilot of a B52 bomber. After expensive training, which she completed as top of her class, she is now suspended from duty, awaiting court martial next month for adultery. The charge relates to an affair with a civilian soccer coach who was in the process of divorcing his wife. Because her lover was married, the affair was regarded as a breach of military discipline.

Until recently, it is said, the preferred attitude to affairs in the military was similar to the official attitude towards homosexuals: "Don't ask. Don't tell." That no longer seems to be true. The US armed forces now seem to have lurched to the opposite attitude of "Ask all. Tell all," which tries to enforce discipline by probing the finer reaches of a soldier's private life.

It is easy to say that officers should be trained to take a common-sense approach and act only where military discipline and the effectiveness of the fighting force is threatened. But that, however, poses a fundamental question which seems to have been overlooked in the rush to make the armed forces an "equal opportunities employer": can the army be a modern profession without embodying a male way of life?