G.I. Blues in Black and White

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It looked like a case of hopelessly contradictory headlines: A day after President Clinton, on a visit to Kosovo, pointed to U.S. peacekeeping troops there as an example of racial harmony the Balkans should emulate, the wires were buzzing about a Pentagon report indicating that all is not well among the races in the American military. "The power of your example," cooed Clinton to the troops in Kosovo, "will show [the Kosovars] that they do not have to be trapped in the pattern of slaughter. You are a rebuke to the biggest problem in the world." Yet reports of the Pentagon study, released Tuesday, painted an ugly picture of minorities being promoted more slowly in the military than whites, experiencing more incidents of racial harassment and having little faith that their complaints of harassment will be diligently processed.

Headlines, of course, tend to paint matters in black and white; the true picture of race relations in the American military is more one of half-full, half-empty. Although the Pentagon sat on the conclusions of the congressionally mandated race report for two years, grappling with how to present it to the public, the news it contained was not all bad. A high percentage of minority respondents reported that race relations have improved in the military in the past five years. And while twice as many minority respondents as white feel the military isn't doing enough to address racial problems, the great majority of problems reported were relatively innocuous. Further, 82 percent of white soldiers reported having a close black friend, a significantly higher proportion than reported by surveys of the civilian population.

Many within the military say that the armed forces' climate of teamwork promotes racial cohesiveness; at the same time, it can't entirely exclude the problems of the civilian world. "You talk to most soldiers and they say they're green," says TIME Washington correspondent Mark Thompson, referring to the color of Army uniforms. "But while things may be better once you're inside, the military can't erase human nature or the fruits of living in the outside world for 18 years. When you take them aside, they're real people who feel resentment and jealousy and all the other things that lead to racism."