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The Army's Internal War

After candid report, it must fight to root out sexual harassment

September 15, 1997

The Army has looked closely at the problem of sexual misconduct in its ranks and issued a withering self-indictment that deserves praise for its candor and support for its determination to clean up an inexcusable mess. While the sexual predation that victimized some women recruits at Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Grounds is seen as an aberration, a new official report acknowledges that sexual harassment is widespread. It exists "throughout the Army, crossing gender, rank and racial lines," the report says.

Heavy blame is put on laxity and inattention by the Army's leadership, meaning officers from lieutenants at the company level to generals in command positions. Underscoring its intention to hold leaders accountable, the Army has issued reprimands to the commanding general at Aberdeen and a number of his subordinates, effectively ending their careers. None was accused of wrongdoing. But as the officers in charge, the responsibility for the misconduct at the base fell on them.

The Army study has already prompted changes. Candidates for drill sergeant are to be given psychological tests and screened for criminal records. A week will be added to basic training to provide more instruction in military values and ethics. And changes will be enforced in a system that too often stigmatizes those who complain to their commanders of sexual harassment.

The Army's aim, as Defense Secretary William Cohen says, is to achieve the same success in solving gender problems that it earlier had with its drug and race problems. It had better. Women in the Army--about one in seven soldiers--report sexual victimization in shocking numbers: A sampling finds that 47% say they have experienced "unwanted sexual attention," 15% say they have been sexually coerced, 7% say they have been sexually assaulted. Bringing these levels down to zero is probably no more possible in the Army than in civilian society. What is possible is to insist on a climate that assures there can be no sanction, excuse or reward for such behavior. The Army has long had a policy of not tolerating sexual misconduct. What it will have now, it promises, is a new resolve to enforce that policy.

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