WASHINGTON — Widespread allegations of abusive behavior toward women are forcing US Army leaders to reexamine the very culture of their service.
Top brass has long said the Army couldn't do its job without female recruits. The influx of women into the military in the post-Vietnam era has helped all the services meet recruiting goals and test standards, among other things.
But charges of sexual misconduct at a number of training bases appear to indicate that for some the Army is still a place of masculine privilege. Positive attitudes at the top about the role of women may certainly help. Gender relationships at the middle and bottom of the Army command hierarchy are now likely to be the subject of tougher scrutiny, however.
"The thing to really chart is whether men in the military are lessening their sense that the military is really their club," says Cynthia Enloe, professor of government at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and author of a book on post-cold-war sexual politics.
The question now is how widespread sexual abuses in the Army might be. If they are limited to a small number of individuals or locations, the image of the service - and the military as a whole - may not suffer too much.
But if a large number of current allegations turn out to be true then the environment at training centers could turn out to be the Army's "Tailhook" - an example pointing to a widespread culture problem, as the Navy's Tailhook harassment scandal did five years ago.
"We don't yet know the extent" of the Army's problem, said Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a broadcast interview over the weekend. "And that's why the Army is casting its net very wide all across the Army ... to get to the bottom of this."
As of this writing, allegations of sexual misconduct centered on two Army training bases - Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, and Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri.
Both locations handle thousands of young recruits each year for advanced individual training, the second stop for Army instruction after basic training. Skills learned focus on what the recruit's first Army job will be. Aberdeen, for example, teaches equipment maintenance.
The training center environment, in which large numbers of relatively green soldiers deal with a fixed hierarchy of mid-level instructors, may have contributed to any sexual harassment problem, in the view of some experts.
On Tuesday, the Army charged three noncommissioned officers at Ft. Leonard Wood with sexual misconduct. One court-martial is to begin immediately. Charges cover a variety of sexual misconduct, but none involve rape.
ALLEGATIONS dealing with Aberdeen appear to be more serious. Last week, the Army filed criminal charges against three trainers at the Maryland base. The charges ranged from rape to sending improper love letters. At least 12 women may have been involved.
An additional 15 Aberdeen instructors have also been placed on paid administrative duty. An Army hot line set up to handle sexual misconduct complaints has taken more than 2,000 calls in less than a week. Army officials said at least 145 of the complaints were serious enough to warrant further inquiry.
The majority of complaints were related to training bases, according to reports.
Pentagon officials have moved quickly to say that they take the Army charges seriously.
"Obviously, we still have a problem," said General Shalikashvili. "But again, do not forget all the advances that have been made and the vast opportunities that women today in the military have."
But the right words from the top often just aren't enough to root out sexual harassment problems, say experts.
"There is so much talk now in all the military services about rooting out their [masculine] cultures," says Ms. Enloe at Clark University. "But that is no reason not to look for commanders' negligence. Cultures grow because people in authority allow them to."
There needs to be follow-up all the way down the chain of command to make sure proper gender relations are enforced. Particularly important, says Enloe, is the way older men in the military relate to younger men. That's the nexus where organizational culture is passed along, she says.
Tailhook was a wake-up call for all the military services, according to Pentagon officials. All took some kind of action in response - though some moved more aggressively than others.
"Everybody has advanced their training on equal-employment opportunities and training on sexual harassment. But the problem still exists. There is a need for leadership and for more opportunities for men and women just to discuss working together," said Susan Tempero, head of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service, in a recent interview.