The culture of the U.S. Navy changed forever as the result of the scandal surrounding the 35th Annual Tailhook Association Symposium at the Las Vegas Hilton—a disgrace that involved the bad decisions of those who assaulted women at the 1991 symposium and of those engaged in the resulting investigations conducted by the Department of the Navy, the Inspector General of the Department of Defense, and the Armed Services Committee. Unintended consequences abounded: The small number of men guilty of assaulting women at the symposium escaped criminal prosecution; none of the accused officers was convicted at court-martial; and the careers of many innocents ended when they were either denied promotion or forced into premature retirement.
How did the perfect storm of Tailhook touchdown in September of 1991? The short answer is timing. In the aftermath of Vietnam, women began to take new roles in the military, and not everyone embraced the changes. Then, at the height of the Tailhook investigations, two years later, Clinton took office and immediately shone the spotlight on gays serving in uniform. The climate was ripe for change and focused on traditional roles of military members. Certainly some long-held opinions about women in the military in general and women in combat in particular fueled the Tailhook scandal, but to settle for that explanation ignores the myriad other factors that played a role, one of the most significant being bad decisions about alcohol use.
Prior to 1991, military cultures encouraged the use and abuse of alcohol. Consuming large quantities of alcohol and “holding your liquor” positioned men, especially aviators, in good stead. Much of the drinking happened at the officers’ clubs where peers and leaders expected aviators to participate in happy hour activities—replete with bar games, strippers, and conduct some would consider unbecoming to anyone.
The military’s tolerance for and encouragement of alcohol has changed dramatically in the more than twenty years since Tailhook. Regrettably, that wasn’t the only change, however. Many of the officers’ clubs have closed or merged into “All Hands” clubs, causing a loss of solidarity and morale in some units. On the other hand, holding one’s liquor is no longer held in high esteem, and a DUI can now be a career-ending move.
While attitudes about alcohol use and women in uniform influenced the decisions that made Tailhook a scandal, bad judgment characterized the debacle from start to finish. A handful of aviators decided to engage in criminal assault; and senior leaders turned a blind eye to inappropriate behavior before and during the convention, but then decided to change the rules of engagement during the investigation. In other words, the same behaviors that proved career-ending at the convention had been tolerated for decades before the 1991 event.
Politicians also created unintended consequences when they inserted themselves into the investigation process after deciding the military had not done an adequate job of policing itself—an overreaction of civilian leadership that forced social changes down the military’s throat—some good, some detrimental. All this combined to create a climate of political correctness that has, in some cases, compromised morale.
Many who influenced Tailhook decisions had personal agendas, conflicting values, an inability to see cause/effect relationships, and the incapacity to anticipate consequences. Some blame the Tailhook scandal for the suicides of the Chief of Naval Operations, Jeremy Boorda, in 1996 and of Coast Guard Captain Ernie Blanchard in 1995. The Washington Post characterized the suicide of Capt. Blanchard as “death by political correctness,” indicating an appreciation for how bad judgment can spawn dreadful unintended consequences.