AS THE Navy, Congress, and the American people consider how to respond to the notorious Navy "Tailhook" scandal, they are being stampeded into inappropriate actions that have little to do with the case, lack perspective and could do more harm than good. Of course, if the charges turn out to be true, then the guilty should most certainly be punished.
But actions being considered by those wishing to use the incident for their own political agendas could threaten to harm the effectiveness of the Navy as a fighting force. Promotions of many key fleet commanders have been held up, and some members of Congress, such as Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo, argue that putting women in combat roles alongside men is the only way to insure sexual equality in the military and thus avoid further cases of sexual misconduct.
Ms. Schroeder and others are missing the point of the military: to fight, kill and die if necessary to protect the United States. To do this requires the most cohesive, efficient and capable fighting machine possible. They seem to think the military is just another venue for social tinkering, no different from any other workplace, perfect for applying feminist ideas about what constitutes equality between the sexes.
Physical standards for combat training will be compromised if women are allowed into combat positions. Problems like pregnancy will disrupt or slow down military combat operations. But most damaging will be the impact on the morale, team cohesion and fighting spirit of the armed forces.
Female soldiers and pilots will be taken prisoner and sexually abused by enemy forces. The attitudes of our enemies will not change, even if ours do, and it would be folly to expect it. Maj. Rhonda Cornum, taken captive by the Iraqis during the Persian Gulf war, acknowledged that she was "violated manually -- vaginally and rectally" by the Iraqis.
The Navy itself has compounded much of the damage from this incident. The presence and alleged complicity of senior officers, the failures throughout the chain of command to respond adequately to complaints and the revelations that reports of misconduct from earlier conferences were ignored, have all made matters much worse. Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III resigned on June 26, under fire for the Navy's mishandling of the case. Even worse, no Navy leader seems willing to clearly and forcefully state the reason why women in combat is a bad idea.
But the Navy is not the only institution that is responding poorly. The Senate has made senseless moves to delay promotions of thousands of Navy and Marine officers, and the House Appropriations Committee has voted to double its original cut of 5,000 positions from Navy headquarters.
To satisfy Congress, the Navy's leaders should expeditiously but fairly investigate and punish those who are found guilty in the Tailhook case and continue vigorously their support for the "zero tolerance" policy toward sexual misconduct that was developed in 1989. But to preserve wartime effectiveness, they must also forcefully explain to Congress and the American public why women should not be allowed in combat.
John Luddy is a former marine infantry officer. He writes from Washington.