- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 22, 2010

NEW YORK | Two decades after integration of the U.S. military, race riots flared on Navy warships in the Vietnam era. Long after service women were officially placed on an equal footing with men, sexual harassment is still pervasive.

Now the military has a new social challenge: Allowing gays to serve openly in the ranks. It is expected that commanders will dutifully implement the policy, and overall it will likely be judged a success, but recent history provides some cautionary lessons.

On one hand, the military has earned a deserved reputation as a meritocracy in which minorities and women can flourish. On the other hand, sexual assault remains a rampant problem, and racism was minimized only after years of friction within the ranks.

Perhaps the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy will unfold more easily, but some female veterans say that will be the case only if commanders are vigilant and aggressive in quashing anti-gay harassment.

“When women come forward to report sexual harassment, that’s when a commander’s courage is tested,” said Anuradha Bhagwati, a former Marine captain who heads the Service Women’s Action Network. “Even though we have fairly decent policies on paper, enforcement of basic harassment policies is very shoddy.”

Several military-policy scholars suggested that the armed forces had done better in regard to racial equality than it has in curtailing harassment of women.

“With race, the military led the way,” said David Segal, a University of Maryland sociologist who has studied military personnel policies. “It was not that way with gender - lots of other workplaces were ahead, and I’m surprised it has taken us this long to get to where we are now.”

But Steven Schlossman, a Carnegie Mellon University history professor who has written about the racial integration of the military, said that process was slow-moving and contentious, with the Army taking more than three years after President Truman’s 1948 desegregation order to comply.

Some of the worst racial conflicts ever in the U.S. military occurred during the Vietnam War, including a 1972 race riot on the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. Even now, blacks hold only about 6 percent of senior command positions while comprising about 17 percent of overall active duty forces.

The adjustment to repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” might be quicker and smoother, since the change appears to have broader support within today’s military than there was for desegregation 60 years ago.

In one 1947 study, four of five enlisted men told the Army they would oppose blacks serving in their units, while a recent Pentagon survey found that two-thirds of the overall force predicted minimal problems if gays were allowed to serve openly.