The Challenge Facing the Navy

FOR the US Navy, the Tailhook Convention in Las Vegas last fall set off not one, but two scandals. First is the sexual-harassment scandal, of which the bawdy convention is Exhibit A. It won't be easy for the Navy - or for the other armed services - to change the he-man culture that permitted the repugnant episode, but the Navy has taken some positive steps.

It will be trickier for the Pentagon to alter the attitudes that gave rise to what seems a coverup of the Tailhook incident, both by participants and, later, by higher-ups who learned of the affair.

The Tailhook Convention, an annual gathering of present and former naval and marine aviators, has a reputation for rowdiness, especially around "hospitality suites" featuring strippers and porno films. Last fall things went from bad to worse when 26 female hotel guests, some of them officers, were forced to run a gantlet of drunken flyers who groped the terrified women.

The Navy's uniformed and civilian leaders - including commander in chief Bush - rightly have condemned the Tailhook outrage, and the Navy has pursued what seems to have been, by and large, an energetic investigation. On orders from the top, all Navy personnel will receive special sensitivity training about sexual harassment.

Sean O'Keefe, the new Navy secretary, says he's determined to eliminate sexual harassment from the fleet.

The armed services must root out sexual harassment from their ranks, and they can do so without undermining morale, esprit de corps, and mission effectiveness. Quite the contrary: Sending sexual harassment to the brig, and thereby elevating the value of mutual respect among military colleagues, can only raise morale and strengthen the intangible bonds that, as much as training and equipment, create an effective fighting force.

The Navy's investigation has been hampered, however, by a code of silence among the Tailhook participants and some of their superior officers. There also are reports that officers further up the chain of command tried to soften the investigation report. Clearly such conduct, to the extent it constitutes obstruction of justice, is wrong.

But the armed forces must tread carefully in any attempts to break down the culture of solidarity that has contributed to the coverup. Strong loyalty up and down the chain of command is essential in the military; there must be absolute trust among those who share a cockpit, a foxhole, or a gun turret.

Yet even in the armed forces, personal loyalty doesn't trump moral and ethical conduct. The challenge for the military is to foster the credo: "I'll die for you but I won't lie for you." Surely that's not impossible.

Compared with that, though, eliminating overt sexual harassment may be easy.

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