WASHINGTON -- In an instant, the chiefs of the nation's armed forces rendered Rep. Patricia Schroeder, one of Capitol Hill's snappiest, quick-witted politicians, speechless.
The four-star officers argued yesterday that outrage over sexual harassment in the military and demands that women be treated fairly should not be used to justify giving women a full range of combat assignments.
Besides, reasoned Marine Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr., women "are not ideally suited" for killing. "It's not a pleasant job. It's not good, it's debasing. It's something I do not want women involved in," he said.
Visibly exasperated, Ms. Schroeder let out a sigh.
"Where do women go?" Ms. Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat, finally asked the men in uniform. "Would you really like to do without women [in the military]? Is there no way to solve it?"
The personal beliefs of the country's highest-ranking military officers -- which they have aired many times before -- collided with the political agenda of Ms. Schroeder and other members of the House Armed Services Committee, who wanted to know why efforts to assure "equal treatment" of men and women in the services did not extend to "equal opportunity" in career assignments.
If nothing else, the clash of ideas demonstrated the apparent difficulty military men have in changing both public actions and private attitudes -- whether their own or those of men under their command.
Last year, Congress repealed laws barring women from Navy and Air Force combat aviation units, and created a commission to study how the assignment of women to combat roles might affect combat readiness. The services have integrated more women into combat-related jobs but not into areas responsible for direct, front-line combat.
The hearing, ostensibly to look at problems of sexual harassment of military women, brought strong promises by the chiefs to do more to eliminate the problem throughout the ranks, and a concession from Adm. Frank B. Kelso II that the Navy should have moved more aggressively to change its male-dominated "culture," especially among "Top Gun" carrier pilots.
"We dealt with sexual harassment at the local level, one case at a time, rather than understanding it as a cultural issue to be addressed throughout the Navy," said Admiral Kelso, the chief of naval operations.
At least 26 women, including 14 officers, were sexually assaulted in September at a convention of the Tailhook Association, a group of active-duty and retired naval aviators. The women said they were fondled and disrobed while being pushed down a gantlet of drunken officers in a Las Vegas hotel hallway.
Rep. Beverly B. Byron, head of the panel's personnel subcommittee, scolded the chiefs -- Admiral Kelso; General Mundy, the Marine Corps commandant; Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, Air Force chief of staff; and Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, Army chief of staff -- saying they needed to make an "absolute" commitment to ending sexual misconduct.
"We have to make sure sexual abuse isn't . . . covered up," said Mrs. Byron, a Maryland Democrat. "I'm sure the message is loud and clear from this side of the podium."
General McPeak conceded that excluding women from combat jobs was discriminatory and illogical but said, "I have thought about it since the sex harassment problems popped up. I still think it is not a good idea for me to order women into combat. Combat is about killing people.
"I'm afraid that even though logic tells us that women can do that as well as men, I have a very traditional attitude about wives, mothers and daughters being ordered to kill people."
General Mundy said aviators and other elite military groups have a "warrior spirit" derived from male bonding and a shared sense of risk and danger. That enthusiasm can be shared with women "in the right assignments," he said, but "we don't want to tamper too much with that warrior spirit."