Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general, is a former commandant of the Army War College.
I remember it like it was yesterday. The year was 1954. I was a fourth-grader at Barden Elementary School at Fort Belvoir, and for the first time in my short life I went into the classroom and there were black kids there. One photo in our family album shows Miss Palbicki’s class; 10 of the 25 children in the picture are African American. I remember telling my mom that day. I thought she, a wonderfully Southern, aristocratic white woman named Clyde, would have a heart attack.
My dad intervened and, for the first time in my memory, shouted at Mom. “So what, Clyde, it’s right that black kids were in Bobby’s class,” he exclaimed. “Their dads had paid for the right for their children to go to school with my son. They shed their blood in Korea. Their kids can go to Barden.”
This wasn’t about the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education or President Harry Truman’s signed order to integrate the services. My dad had served in the Second Infantry Division’s Second Engineer Battalion in Korea. By the time he arrived in theater, thousands of white soldiers in the division had been killed, wounded or captured. To fill foxholes and hold the line, the Army sent soldiers from all-black units to fight and die alongside units that had been all-white.
Years later, when I commanded a battery in Vietnam, there was no question that black soldiers had the right to serve.
Fast-forward to 2011: It had to be the most significant non-event in recent history when openly gay troops were accepted into the military’s ranks with very little institutional resistance. Why did the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy disappear with hardly a whimper? Because most in the professional officer corps recognized that we have served with homosexual soldiers for all of our careers. Until he died in 1997, my dad talked about gay noncommissioned officers who held his unit together during the dark days in Korea. During my 35 years of Army service, I worked for gay generals and commanded gay officers, enlisted men and women. It was no big deal. Many of us were glad the charade was over.
But then came the news a few days ago that the officer in charge of preventing sexual harassment in the Air Force was charged with sexual battery. How, I wondered, can a culture that has been instrumental in advancing social change be so regressive when it comes to gender equality? Women accounted for about 2 percent of the military in 1972. Nearly 40 years later, it seems as if we are going backward.
I asked my two daughters, who are Army veterans, what they thought. Their answers were sobering. As with the military’s acceptance of African Americans and gay soldiers, the issue does not lie with observing regulations or executive orders. This is about culture. The rank and file have yet to accept women into their community. Women have fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are no longer excluded from combat zones. But the military has yet to fully accept women or their contributions.
To be sure, part of this is about sex. The chest-bumping manly culture rejects the presence of women in the ranks. Sadly, many soldiers still view their domain as a male preserve. Just before I retired and before my daughters left the service, I asked them what they worried about most during their commands. More than anything, they feared falling out of a run. When men fell out, they said, it was due to a hard night of carousing. When women fell out, it was seen as due to their physical shortcomings. During their years of service, both of my daughters shrugged off occasional unwanted advances. They laughed about boorish colleagues who, fueled by alcohol, made fools of themselves in the presence of female officers. They recall commanders who neglected to include them in golf outings or nights at the bar. They always sought to be more pure than Caesar’s wife in the hopes that their professionalism would overcome the innate prejudice of their peers. After serving four years, both gave up and resigned their commissions.
Protestations and outrage such as that voiced by the president and the defense secretary this week can do only so much. To be sure, there are administrative and judicial actions that can increase punishments for male soldiers who act badly. But so long as the culture of the rank and file rejects the presence of women as their professional partners, nothing will change. The presence of African American soldiers is now unquestioned. Gay men and women have been part of the military culture as far back as I can remember. Women are different. It breaks my heart that this is so.
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