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Sidebar -- The Great Society in Camouflage, December 1996

Sex in Camouflage

Thomas E. Ricks on the failures that have led to the Army's sexual-abuse scandal

In "The Great Society in Camouflage" (December, 1996, Atlantic) Thomas E. Ricks looks at the culture of the U.S. Army and finds that Army personnel are protected by "the sturdiest social safety net in America." Ricks reports that the Army's efforts to enforce fair treatment of women and minorities have for the most part been successful -- strict rules governing all aspects of Army personnel's conduct are in place -- but this fall's sexual-abuse scandals at Aberdeen Proving Ground and other bases have shaken the Army and point to worrisome lapses in its equal-opportunity system and chain of command. Ricks recently spoke about the scandal and its possible reverberations with The Atlantic's Katie Bacon.

How serious is the recent Army scandal? What does the scandal -- and the Army's handling of it -- imply about the current status of women in the Army?

Very serious, both in the nature of the offenses alleged and in the problems with the system it has uncovered. This was a systemic failure, not a cultural failure like the Navy's Tailhook scandal. The gravest problem is the failure of the chain of command, which is not supposed to happen for two reasons: you're supposed to have the discipline of an individual trainer, an individual sergeant, and you're also supposed to have a chain of command that supervises and enforces discipline. There seems to have been a breakdown in both places.

So far the Army's moved out very aggressively. They've learned their lesson from Tailhook: Don't lose control of the investigation. Disclose what you

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know and talk about it even at the cost of impeding the prosecution of the individuals. Why do that? Because it's more important to change the way the chain of command operates than to secure the convictions of the individuals.

In terms of what this scandal implies about the status of women in the Army, be careful of using the events at Aberdeen as a proxy for the whole Army. Aberdeen really does strike me as a bizarre aberration. Yes, there have been other offenses elsewhere, but as far as I can tell Aberdeen is the only place where there has been a "meltdown" of several cases at once. Aberdeen certainly shows, though, that the Army has more problems than we, or the Army, thought. They have done a very good job with race, and generally have opened more roles to women -- you see them in command positions now. They have an established equal-opportunity system. But I think that these successes have made them complacent and that, in this instance, the chain of command fell asleep at the wheel.

There has been a flood of complaints of sexual harassment since the Army set up a toll-free hot line in the wake of the scandal. You write, however, that "the Army has built equal opportunity (EO) into its way of life." How do you explain the discrepancy between what the Army says it's doing and what so many callers are complaining of?

The system clearly wasn't working in these cases; the EO system wasn't hearing about them, or wasn't responding to them. It reminds me of something a brigade commander once told me about race: The Army began to deal in a racially fair manner when it made race the commander's business. When you make equal opportunity an EO officer's business, not much is going to happen. It has to be a commander's business, which is something gender issues haven't always been. The top dog in the chain of command has to make it clear that sexual harassment won't be tolerated. Major General Burnette talks about that in my article, and I really believe that if he came across a whiff of this stuff, he would come down on it hard. Something at Aberdeen and the other bases must be different.

There's a lot of confusion in the civilian workplace about what constitutes sexual harassment, particularly as enforcement becomes stricter. Is there the same confusion in the Army?

Yes, very much so. The Army has cast its net so wide that sexual harassment covers everything from criminal behavior, like rape, to oafish behavior, like treating a woman differently than the men who are in the same unit. Even excessive politeness that makes her feel different from the rest of the unit counts as harassment. This sort of behavior needs to be changed, but should it be hauled up in the same net as criminal activity? I don't think so. In the example where sexual harassment comes up in my article, the way the Army tries to dissuade it is punitive rather than behavioral: if you violate the rules we're going to dump this sexual-harassment form on you and it will terminate your career.

This deterrent didn't work everywhere, did it?

Absolutely not. Laura Miller, a sociologist at Harvard who is currently writing a book about women in the military, says that her studies have led her to believe that when you get these repeated violations occurring it's because men see other men getting away with it. A predatory atmosphere can develop. And that seems to be what happened here.

What changes do you expect the Army to make to avoid this sort of thing in the future?

I think the changes they make will seem sort of technical to the layman. I suspect that what they'll wind up doing is instituting another layer of supervision in the training. The best analogy to this scandal is not Tailhook but the Marines' Ribbon Creek disaster of 1956. An abusive drill instructor on Parris Island marched his platoon one night into the swamps, and six recruits drowned. There was a massive congressional investigation; the commanding general of Parris Island was fired along with more than a hundred drill instructors. Most significantly, the Marines instituted another layer of supervision within boot camp, people who basically do nothing but watch the drill instructors -- especially when they don't think they're being watched. The Army doesn't have that. This is a serious issue because you really need to enforce standards twenty-four hours a day. I've been with deployed units where after a week I can tell you who has nightmares and what time of night they begin. It's a total environment, and when standards are let down it can become poisonous very quickly. You really need a type of supervision you don't have in civilian life.

I think the Army is even more alarmed by what's happened than the civilian world is. I got a note from a friend in the Army recently who said that this is really scary in it raises discipline issues, and that without discipline in the Army, you have nothing. For the Army this is a whiff of the nightmare years of Vietnam, when you had racial strife in the ranks and near riots going on among heavily armed men, many of whom were on drugs at the time. The guys who these days run the Army were young lieutenants when this was happening, and the notion of going back to that sort of era terrifies them.

Remember, too, that this is a downsizing Army that's looking to get rid of people. Serious offenses of this sort are not tolerated. They're getting rid of very good people with impeccable records, so there's no reason to keep somebody around who has a blot on their record.

How much does the changing character of incoming recruits (mentioned in your article) have to do with the breakdown in discipline that led to these incidents of sexual abuse?

The striking thing here is that these offending sergeants are not young soldiers. The oafish recruit who acts insensitive and doesn't know how to deal with women professionally might not know that what he's doing is wrong, might not even realize he's given offense. These sergeants knew that what they were doing was wrong. This is where gender is different from race. Colin Powell is very fond of saying that race does not constitute behavior, that you cannot predict behavior from skin color. But gender, in certain ways, does constitute behavior. With gender comes sexual orientation, which is pure behavior, so there are a whole lot of messy problems that the Army has not really focused on.

At the end of your article you suggest that if the Pentagon has to make steep budget cuts in the coming year, as many expect it will, the strong support system the Army now provides will suffer greatly. How would this affect women in the Army?

It will affect women disproportionately, in many different ways. For example, there are 18,000 single parents in the Army, most of whom are women. They are an expensive proposition in the military. If you start cutting the social safety net -- by, say, limiting access to day care -- those single parents may not be able to stay in the Army.


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