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Tailhook's dilemma: soldiering vs. civility

Hyperbole, confusion and even hypocrisy have characterized much of the public discussion of the so-called Tailhook scandal. Some have found the aviators' behavior in Las Vegas to be a monstrous evil, akin to rape or mayhem. Others have confused the issues raised by the Tailhook event with the unrelated issues concerning where and whether gays and women should serve in the military. Mostly, the events in Las Vegas have been characterized as not more nor less than particularly vulgar sexual harassment.

The events that occurred at the Tailhook Convention in 1991 were not merely or even mostly about sexual harassment and it is a mistake to view them as such. The antisocial behavior of the naval and Marine aviators that took place in Las Vegas is only the most recent and notorious manifestation of a dilemma that has faced every society since elite fighting forces were formed. The best fighters, whether they are infantry, Marines, submariners or fighter pilots, are selected for certain attributes. Among these is an aggressiveness that would be inappropriate in other circumstances, a loyalty to one's peers and a willingness to defy or disregard the rules of self-preser-vation laid down by God. That is the dilemma: how to make those selected for aggressiveness and willful defiance of the rules of God in war to follow the rules of man in peace?

That the antisocial behavior at the Tailhook convention took the form of sexual harassment is mere happenstance. It could just as well have taken the form of a barroom brawl or drunken driving or flying aircraft below a safe altitude. The injuries inflicted on the buttocks and sensibilities of the women at the Tailhook convention could as well have been to the noses of bar patrons, the electric company's power lines or Farmer Jones' cows.

Contrary to the inferences of some public commentators, this conflict between wartime and peacetime behavior is not new. The literature and movies of the last 20 years recognize the phenomenon. Consider, for example, the behavior of the German submariners in the film Das Boot as they prepared for a mission. Their drunken revelry and raucous behavior illustrates the antisocial qualities of those selected and trained to face the high probability of death in World War II German U-boat service.

Perhaps the best literary illustration of the tension between military performance and peacetime behavior is The Right Stuff. The very heart of Tom Wolfe's book is the connection between antisocial behavior on the one hand and skillful flying on the other.

Recall that astronaut (now U.S. Sen.) John Glenn was first thought by his colleagues not to have the right stuff precisely because he did not show the normal, abnormal anti-social attributes.

I am certain that the French Foreign Legion, British fighter pilots and every fighting force going back to the Roman legionnaires faced the same problem.

What can and should be done about Tailhook and other similar but less well publicized incidents?If Marines were selected and screened for passive and not aggressive behavior, if fighter pilots were chosen from those who conform to every societal norm, the problem of antisocial behavior, of lewd skits about Rep. Patricia Schroeder, of fighting in bars and buzzing cows would be solved. Unfortunately, units so chosen are likely to fight like French infantry, not like German panzers. When the time came to fly over Baghdad at night or across the desert searching for "Scuds," one would find they had colds or their aircraft were grounded with imaginary mechanical failures.

Here, then, is the dilemma. Is it more costly to have bad fighters or bad citizens? To the extent that they do not acknowledge this conflict, Gen. Carl Mundy, Adm. Frank B. Kelso and the outspoken politicians are fooling us. Some things can and should be done. Certainly, the worst offenders in the Tailhook affair should have their hands slapped. But it is equally certain that the kind of heavy penalties that appear to await some of the Tailhook participants are unwise. We must tolerate a certain amount of antisocial behavior if we wish to have the most effective fighting forces. To suggest that we can have the best of both worlds is to deny the existence of the war/peace dilemma.

James J. White, a former Air Force fighter pilot, is a professor at the University of Michigan Law School.

Special to the Los Angeles Times