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Separate GI Joe and Jane?

The special panel appointed by Defense Secretary William Cohen leaned toward pragmatism in recommending that men and women be separated during some portions of basic and advanced training. Did it, at the same time, turn away from equal opportunity and fairness?

Equal treatment from the time recruits step off the bus has been an article of faith among those concerned that women be given full access to military careers. Women have moved into combat branches formerly denied them. At the higher levels at least, commitment to gender integration has been firm. And integration has had some notable successes, such as the military academies.

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The problems involved in bringing down gender barriers surfaced most graphically in the incidents of sexual assault at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. For opponents of the policy, those incidents bolstered arguments that it's simply impractical to mix men and women in such stressful and intimate settings as boot camp and other intense training.

But the Aberdeen incidents sprang from a callous abuse of power by male drill instructors. Did they indicate a widespread problem, or a rare collapse of discipline?

A chief concern of the panel, reportedly, is that instructors and trainees are too often distracted from duties by the disciplinary problems that arise when young men and women are housed together. Separate barracks would lessen such difficulties, the panel suggests. Marching, weapons training, and other field exercises would still be integrated.

A careful balance is called for here. Bad behavior by a few men, or the inability of some officers to enforce rules and change attitudes, should not become an excuse for rolling back the significant gains women have made in the military. On the other hand, some separation of the genders could be practically necessary - especially if a case can be made that total gender integration is resulting in ill-trained young soldiers and sailors reporting to their units. So far, however, that case has not been made.

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