The Navy's Problem With Wine and Women

MARY WERTSCH

August 27, 1992|By MARY WERTSCH

The Tailhook scandal, in which hundreds of Navy and Marine officers engaged in licentious, offensive, even criminal behavior against women at a convention in Las Vegas, Nev., has spawned four separate investigations and brought down a secretary of the Navy. But when it comes to remedial action to change this offensive behavior in the military, the only thing discussed is sensitivity training on the subject of sexual harassment.

For anyone who has served in the military, or who was raised in it, as I was, this is laughable. It is not that sensitivity training isn't needed, but focusing just on Neanderthal sexual attitudes ignores a much more pervasive problem: alcohol abuse.

The alcohol bill for the three-day convention in Las Vegas ran about $7,000 per hospitality suite. Shocking, but not particularly surprising. Drunkenness has long been accepted in military life as a way to encourage bonding and let off steam for men drawn taut by the stress of putting their lives on the line. The military's own studies show a problem of such dimension that it should long ago have been raised as a national-security issue.

Nearly 20 years ago, a Navy study found the proportion of ''problem drinkers'' in the Navy to be as high as 38 percent. Three years ago, the Department of Defense released a study comparing military and civilian drinking habits; it concluded that the rate of very heavy drinking in the military is nearly twice that of the civilian population. Yet the military continues to sell cheap, untaxed liquor at base stores and to permit happy hours at base clubs where drinks can be bought for as little as 25 cents.

The revelation of Tailhook is that the military is sadly out of sync with the values of the civilian community that supports it. Even more telling, however, is the fact that the military is even out of sync with its own reality: The assumption that alcohol fosters cohesion conducive to high performance on the battlefield certainly was proved wrong by the totally dry gulf war, in which the military seemed to have performed to its own great satisfaction without benefit of booze.

In short, mandatory sensitivity training may help pacify current critics of military behavior; it will accomplish little else. But one of the marvels of the military is that it is a place where norms of behavior can be changed overnight. The Pentagon should not only prohibit offensive behavior; it should mandate stress-management training at all levels. It is unrealistic to train men to kill, give them no training whatever in how to manage stress, then in effect hand them a bottle and still expect them to conduct themselves in a civilized manner.

Tailhook should be the watershed event that finally forces the Department of Defense to dissolve its long-standing, pathological partnership with alcohol.

Mary Wertsch is the author of ''Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress.''

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