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Commentary | PERSPECTIVES ON WOMEN IN THE MILITARY

Separating the Sexes Is Costly Paternalism . .

Stories of all-night sex orgies are just scare tactics by those who would sacrifice readiness to achieve separation.

June 24, 1998|JANE HARMAN | Jane Harman of Torrance is the ranking Democratic woman on the House National Security Committee and a co-leader of its task force investigating sexual misconduct in the armed forces

This month, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of President Truman's integration of female military units into the regular armed forces. Meanwhile, the Senate has scheduled a measure that would overturn the explicit policies of the Army, Navy and Air Force to conduct basic training in units that are fully integrated by gender. Similar legislation has already passed the House of Representatives, despite the expressed opposition of most of my female colleagues, the secretary of defense and all of the service secretaries.

Reasons for fully integrating military training are both tangible and intangible. The most obvious concern is cost. The $168-million price tag to construct gender-segregated barracks for the Army alone is no small matter. Already faced with spending billions of dollars for basic repairs, our armed services can hardly afford the additional burden of allocating enormous sums for the gratuitous satisfaction of old prejudices.

Another reason for keeping integrated basic training units: Since 1973, when the draft ended, it has been impossible to field a modern military without a full complement of women. Today, with the armed forces scrambling to attain authorized strength in the midst of a booming economy, the recruitment pool of highly trained and motivated candidates has become dangerously shallow.

Indeed, without its 200,000 women--14% of all active-duty personnel--the American military would cast a mere shadow of the strength and prowess it now projects around the world.

Resegregation also would subvert an important principle that shapes Pentagon thinking on basic training: "Train the way we fight." Delaying integration merely postpones problems to advanced training facilities like the infamous Aberdeen Proving Ground. Postponing the training of men and women on how to work together until a later point in the training cycle will adversely affect how integrated units actually operate in the field. To quote the recent testimony of the vice chief of naval operations before a subcommittee of the House National Security Committee: "If men and women do not learn how to live and work together during basic training, are the confined quarters aboard ship the next-best place to do so? I think not."

Advocates of gender resegregation often scare those who would otherwise support the current system by conjuring up visions of gender-mixed dormitories with all-night sexual trysts. Not true. Barracks separate men and women now, and recent steps by the Pentagon include breakaway fire walls and alarms to make certain that men and women stay put. And mixed training does not mean that women will be required to fight in foxholes in the next war; it ensures that women can succeed in occupational specialties already open to them.

Rather than aid readiness or fix recent problems of sexual harassment and abuse in the military, Congress' expensive and embarrassing paternalism will actually erode the readiness of our armed forces. The opportunity is enormous: The military can lead society in the integration of roles and responsibilities of our recruits, or it can default on an essential key to military readiness.

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