THE Navy's continued inability to treat sexual harassment and crime with the seriousness they deserve would not have surprised President Franklin Roosevelt.
''The Admirals are really something to cope with - and I should know,'' he complained in 1940 to an official. ''To change anything in the Na-a-vy is like punching a feather bed. You punch it with your right hand and you punch it with your left hand until you are finally exhausted, and then you find the damn bed just as it was before you started punching.'' FDR knew whereof he spoke; he'd been assistant secretary of the Navy for over seven years.
When Adm. Richard Macke told journalists that the three men of his command who kidnapped and raped a 12-year-old Okinawan girl had been ''stupid'' for not hiring a prostitute instead, he showed how parochial and distant from mainstream thinking even a four-star admiral can be. But blame the culture, not merely the man. As a matter of course, officers in the other services try to understand their civilian neighbors outside the gates. It's part of their job, and can pay off when the local member of Congress votes on the defense budget - or when rowdy troops hit town on Saturday night.
The Navy is not blind to these issues. But there is always the lure of blue water, of those months-long deployments on the great oceans, when the messy civilian world becomes irrelevant, and the true sailor comes into his own. Life at sea carries its own tensions, demands, and requirements, from the notion of ''officer's country,'' - a no-go for enlisted personnel - to the Marine sentry posted outside the captain's quarters. Above all, there is the imperative of cohesion, of being a good shipmate and looking out (covering up?) for your buddies, on whom survival itself depends for those ''in peril on the sea.''
So casual conversation among officers avoids potentially divisive subjects. Instead, it is minor issues, personnel management, and reminiscences, that hold center stage. It was in that spirit that Admiral Macke dismissed rape as an essentially managerial, disciplinary problem, of enlisted men who had been ''stupid,'' and would be punished accordingly.
This might just possibly be accepted from a mid-level officer. But not from a full admiral, one of the senior leaders of a great American institution, whose voice was heard not only in the United States but in Northeast Asia, Japan, South Korea, and Okinawa itself. His own words had shown Macke not only to be blind to current policy at the top in the Pentagon, but to lack the common sense and good judgment for senior commands. He had, in effect, been promoted beyond his capabilities. And the speed - and harshness - of the Pentagon's response suggests that high policy on sexual issues now is too firmly established for anyone to cut Macke any slack.
What to do? The obvious answer is education, in the broadest sense. I remember the painful debate in the Army about the concept of ''just war,'' in the aftermath of Vietnam. The issues addressed in the Army's journals were ethical, almost theological, certainly moralistic. There was no whitewash: Historians and philosophers, who held no brief for the Army, made forceful contributions. The Navy should not fear similar debates. Perhaps the Naval War College could invite prominent feminists, such as Gloria Steinem or Betty Freidan, to lecture. Or elderly Okinawans could testify about how the terrible battle of spring 1945 made them fear men in uniform.
When Franklin Roosevelt prepared to introduce new ideas to a Depression-bound America, he proclaimed that we have ''nothing to fear but fear itself'' - a doctrine the Navy might keep in mind.