In the 1989 film "When Harry Met Sally," Billy Crystal proclaims, "Men and women can never be friends, the sex thing always gets in the way."
Nowhere is this more on display than in efforts to integrate men and women into the military. Defense Secretary William Cohen's announcement that he would leave the current structure of basic training in place while directing the services to ensure that the sexes are sufficiently separated in their otherwise integrated barracks does little to solve the immediate challenges. These challenges were highlighted last December by Cohen's own commission on gender-integrated training, formed after revelations from the Army's Aberdeen, Md., training facility and headed by former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker.
Kassebaum Baker recommended establishing separate, gender-segregated 60-person platoons within integrated training companies.
Platoons are the fundamental military organization, where unit cohesion, mutual support and closely shared experiences are nurtured. These units not only train together, but also live, sleep and eat together. Trainees are energetic, healthy young men and women, usually right out of high school. Many are away from home for the first time and, as was noted in a congressional hearing, are "in their sexual prime." Training cadres found it difficult to maintain discipline and to establish uniform, understandable, workable rules about fraternization and dating during limited off-duty time. Accordingly, rules have evolved, such as the "no talk, no touch" rule discovered by the Kassebaum Baker commission, making it difficult for recruits to work together and forcing platoons to be artificially reconfigured. If the objective is to foster an environment where men and women are treated equally and work together regardless of gender, allowing trainers to establish rules making it difficult for trainees to interact is inconsistent with the goal.
Military women, especially those in basic training, want to be challenged, they want to learn, they want to earn respect and they want a degree of security and privacy. They do not want to share open platoon bays, washrooms or showers with men. Nor do they want the doors to their rooms and baths removed so that the training cadre can closely monitor their activities, ensuring that fraternization and other rules are enforced. Once the cadre is forced to resort to such tactics, we have a situation where the cure is worse than the disease. The solution is separate platoons housed in separate buildings.
Basic training is where recruits are introduced to necessary military skills, the strident demands of military discipline and physically challenged as never before. Contemporary military culture demands the acceptance of certain practices unacceptable to civilian society, principally training to kill other human beings and the rejection of other practices generally acceptable to civilian society, including relationships between men and women. This is not a transition that can happen immediately. The Army has been dealing with it for years.
Kassebaum Baker's proposal, which is in the current House version of the defense authorization bill, does not do away with gender-integrated training, nor does it threaten the chances for women to advance in the armed forces. What it does do is increase their chances to succeed in the military and increase the military's chances of providing a disciplined, effective and ready force.