Lies can’t live forever, as we have seen recently in Eastern Europe. One result of the American invasion of Panama may be that, despite the best efforts of the United States Army, Americans will finally learn the truth about women in the military.

It didn’t take long for the truth to come out of Panama, First we heard that a female officer. Army Captain Linda Bray, had led a platoon of MP’s (military police-people) in an attack against a “heavily defended” attack-dog kennel. Three Panamanian soldiers were killed in a three-hour firefight that climaxed with a daring assault by Bray herself, who—said one press report—crashed her jeep through the gates of the kennel while blazing away with her machine gun. One of Bray’s female soldiers even “single-handedly captured an enemy prisoner.”

A week later, we heard another story. Unnamed Army officers were quoted saying the original report of Bray’s heroics was “grossly exaggerated.” The kennel was lightly held, the firefight lasted only ten minutes, and there was no one killed or injured. Bray was not present during the firefight but was a half-mile away at her command post. After arriving at the scene, she did not crash through the gate in her jeep; she stood aside while her driver used the jeep to force the gate open. The lone Panamanian captured was a harmless fellow who showed up after the fight to check on the dogs. The real enemy got away.

There is no denying that everything could have happened the way the first report said it did. Nothing in the first report is beyond belief But neither is there any doubt that the handling of the episode by the press and the Army was typical of the way the issue of women in the military has been handled for some time now.

The present role of women in our military was built upon exaggeration and deceit. The good that military women do is always exaggerated, while the problems they cause are swept under the rug. The press tends to limit its coverage of the issue to profiles of individual servicewomen who are supposed to be able to perform their jobs as well as any man. Rarely is there any attempt to go beyond these images of success to discuss such complex problems as pregnancy, single-parenthood, and fraternization. When such problems are mentioned at all, they are invariably blamed on the services. If only the services provided more child care, if only they added sex education to the training schedule, if only local commanders demonstrated a little’ more leadership, such problems would go away. Or so some would have us believe.

Without doubt, media coverage of women in the military has been both shallow and heavily slanted in favor of a wider military role for women, but it would be wrong to blame the press alone for the distortions foisted upon the American public. The greater share of blame should go to the military, which has been feeding the press halftruths and outright lies for many years now.

Panama also gave us a good example of the military’s in-house deceitfulness on the subject of women. Two weeks after we learned the truth about Captain Bray, CBS News reported that two female truck drivers stood accused of cowardice in the face of the enemy for tearfully refusing to drive a company of Rangers to the site of the fiercest fighting. The accusation was leveled by the commander of an infantry battalion the women were supporting, but nothing was done about it until the story made the evening news. Only then did the Army in Panama conduct a hasty investigation, which soldiers in Panama said was intended to protect the women rather than to find the facts.

Just two days after the investigation began, and before it was completed, the Army’s public affairs office in the Pentagon publicly absolved the women of any fault. An Army colonel told USA Today the women had been driving for nine hours and had asked to be relieved because they were tired and feared they might endanger the lives of their passengers. “Does that indicate cowardice? I don’t think so,” he was quoted as saying, “They were driving through fire all night long. . . . There’s no indication we had anything other than two exhausted soldiers.” The Washington Post quoted another spokesman saying the women “performed superbly.”

None of the spokesmen denied the women had cried before being relieved of their duties, a point not lost on the editors of the New Republic, who called the Army’s praise of the women “ludicrous and patronizing.” The editors of other publications were less critical, however. Most simply reported the Army’s excuses on behalf of the women and left it at that. It was an isolated incident, “just two women out of how many others,” said a reporter for the independent newspaper Army Times, explaining why his paper did not pursue the matter even after receiving additional details of the incident that contradicted statements by the Army.

Such willingness to overlook evidence contrary to prevailing opinion about women in combat was just what the Army was counting on. All it had to do was wrap the evidence in cellophane and the press would pretend it couldn’t see a thing. No one would let on that the Army’s story about the women being too tired to drive was ludicrous on the surface. Any soldier too tired to continue his mission after only nine hours on duty is not much of a soldier, or no soldier at all.

Neither would the press bother to verify the Army’s account of the incident. If they had, they would have found that the women had not been driving for nine hours “under fire.” They had driven only in the first hour of the invasion and had spent the next eight hours safely waiting for their next mission. Nor had the women voiced any concern about their ability to accomplish their mission until they were told it would be dangerous, and among the men at the scene there was no doubt that the women were acting out of fear and not fatigue.

Also, the investigation did not find the women blameless. Rather, it recommended against prosecution because of dubious legal objections. The investigating officer, an Army lawyer, reasoned that the women could not be prosecuted for failing to obey orders because the orders came from someone outside their chain of command and because the spirit of the so-called combat exclusion laws makes it unlawful to order women on a combat mission.

The Army’s suppression and distortion of these facts constitutes a shameless, cynical, arrogant cover-up of an event that reflects poorly upon Army women and Army policy. It was a deliberate, and quite successful, attempt to misinform and mislead the American people.

Panama did not prove that women should be combat soldiers. The action was too limited, too short, too safe. Capt. Bray’s attack on the dog kennel was little more than “playing army” compared to the horrors men faced at Pork Chop Hill or Bastogne.

Neither did the invasion prove that women should not be combat soldiers, though it did produce evidence to support that position. Panama did prove that the Army cannot be trusted to tell the truth about women in the military. The politics of the issue are too sensitive, the habit of adhering to the party line too ingrained to permit any honest presentation of the issue or the evidence. Too many high-ranking Army officers don’t mind compromising their personal integrity as long as it’s in the line of duty. Too many Army spokesmen don’t mind saying the stupidest things as long as they think no one will notice.