WITH troop cutbacks already causing grumbling in the ranks, the United States military is now facing its broadest social change since President Truman ordered Army racial integration in 1948.
This week the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces is due to submit its final report to President Bush. The report does not go as far as many had expected it would, as it recommends that women continue to be prohibited from ground and air combat roles. But it does propose allowing females on Navy surface warships.
"It is a sea change that we're going to allow women on combat ships," argues Charles Moskos, a panel member and a sociology professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Meanwhile, with the election of Gov. Bill Clinton the Defense Department is finally confronting the issue of gays in the military.
In recent years, the Pentagon leadership has softened its rhetoric about the danger of allowing homosexuals in the armed forces - most notably after an internal study showed gays no more susceptible to blackmail for their sexual activities than heterosexuals. But homosexuality remains grounds for military expulsion, and there is a deep strain of resistance to changing that rule.
"The women thing is semi-settled. The gay thing bothers the military more," Professor Moskos says.
The commission on women in the armed forces in fact made its decisions in an atmosphere of bitter division. Five conservatives on the 15-member panel staged a brief walkout during its election-day deliberations in a successful attempt to move some of the panel's voting their way. Resistance to women in ground combat
In hindsight, several themes stand out from the commission's vote and eight-month reporting process.
One is that there was little support for allowing women in ground combat units, because of strength and perceived problems in maintaining unit cohesion.
Another is that the Navy, its reputation battered by the Tailhook sexual-abuse scandal, is the most open of the services to an increased role for females.
The last point is that while the panel may have voted by a narrow margin to keep women out of the cockpit of planes in combat units, that particular issue is far from settled. Within the military there is a vocal constituency of women pilots who want the opportunity to fly combat missions. The panel's recommendations are advice only, and President-elect Clinton has promised to look at the female-pilot question.
Of course, he may well have his hands full trying to implement his campaign promise to change the military policy of excluding gays. (Civilian homosexuals are allowed to work for the Department of Defense.)
Retired Adm. William Crowe, a former Joint Chiefs chairman and a key Clinton backer, is working on the president-elect to change his mind. There are dark mutterings in Pentagon halls about high-level resignations if the rule is changed.
While admitting that he is going to "consult with a lot of people" before he takes action, Clinton has not backed off on his promise. The issue is perhaps his first taste of the no-win political decisions that so often face occupants of the Oval Office.
On the one hand, not to proceed with allowing gays in the military would be a clear reneging on an explicit campaign promise. To many the issue seems one of simple fairness in today's climate - a decision that would give voice to Clinton's campaign slogan "hope, not fear."
On the other hand, to push forward could make the new president seem a captive of special interest groups - in this case, homosexuals. By provoking military opposition it could raise anew the GOP campaign charge of Clinton's essential unfitness to be commander in chief. Discipline difficulties foreseen
Many other NATO nations have already quietly moved to end discrimination against gays - with Canada, which made the change in late October, being the latest. But military officers fear that placing open homosexuals in the close quarters that are common to armed-forces life would be "prejudicial to good order and discipline," in the phrase of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Colin Powell.
If Clinton implements his proposed change, it will "probably pose a considerable problem for a period of time with those that have command," noted Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana at a breakfast with reporters last week.
But Senator Lugar noted that court cases could make Clinton's decision moot. In the most publicized such case, a Naval petty officer discharged for homosexuality won a court order giving him his job back last week, pending a final decision on his suit for permanent reinstatement.