NATIONAL PREOCCUPATION with sex in the military has now reached the point where a general who was first in line to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has become unacceptable. Many officers may sympathize with Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, as does Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen. But realities in Washington, where Senate confirmation is required, probably dictate that his career is over. It is time for Mr. Cohen to accept the fact that the nation's top military officer cannot be subject to derision or derogation that will undermine his position.
This obsession began as legitimate outrage at the way drill sergeants at Aberdeen Proving Ground were forcing sex on vulnerable and subordinate female trainees.
Next came the case of Air Force Lieut. Kelly Flinn, who was drummed out of the service not because of admitted adulterous affairs, including one with an enlisted man, but because she lied to an official investigator and disobeyed a direct order to stop a relationship.
Then came the case of Maj. Gen. John Longhouser, commander at APG, who went into retirement after he admitted having an affair with a civilian woman more than five years ago while separated from his wife. He had to go, after an anonymous tip on a Pentagon hot line, because he was in a posting that required him to oversee adjudication of sexual violations by persons under his command.
It was in this tumultuous context that Mr. Cohen had to consider what to do about General Ralston, who admitted having had an '' affair more than a dozen years ago with a woman who worked for the CIA but was outside the military. The secretary, seeking to draw a line between a "rule of thumb rather than a rule of reason," said General Ralston was not disqualified for the chairmanship of the JCS.
Although he was obviously trying to avoid a "witch hunt" and to preserve morale in the military, Mr. Cohen's stand soon came under withering fire from that citadel of rectitude, Capitol Hill. An American society that permits everything to hang out in popular culture still adheres to Puritan dogma in military service, where long absences and frequent moves cause family stress. A Ralston appointment under such circumstances is not likely to be sustained; it could be too damaging to the armed services and the general himself.
This sad business may yet have a purpose if it causes the nation's leaders to determine that enough is enough. Obviously, sexual exploitation of subordinates cannot be permitted in the military. Obviously, persons in uniform cannot be permitted to lie or disobey orders or conduct their personal lives in ways that undermine their mission or their service. To the extent that clarification is possible in what is a very murky and human area, it should be attempted bravely and forthrightly.
Pub Date: 6/09/97