A Tangled Webb

By Colonel Paul E Roush, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

This belief undergirds the notion that the way for a midshipman to become a warrior is to submit to a regimen of pervasive, arbitrary physical and psychological abuse at the hands of other barely post-pubescent midshipmen who have never heard a shot fired in anger. These slightly older midshipmen, despite their utter lack of combat experience, will know how to create warriors. They will harass, haze, and brutalize. Then they will separate the victims into two piles: the worthy and the worthless. Those who submit to and thrive on brutality will be the worthy; those who do not tolerate it or do not thrive on it will be counted among the worthless.

This theme is central to "Women Can't Fight." Webb apparently believes he owes his prowess on the battlefield to the fact that, as a midshipman at the Naval Academy, he was severely beaten with a cricket bat by a group of upperclassmen and otherwise exposed to physical assaults. It is a major point in A Sense of Honor that a plebe is indoctrinated by being severely stressed by an upperclassman-never mind that in the process the upperclassman violates the hazing laws legislated by Congress. From this perspective, A Sense of Honor is an object lesson in and a glorification of the violation of congressional legislation. Because Congress is granted the right to make laws governing the armed forces by the Constitution, the book is also a model of how one violates one's commissioning oath to support and defend the Constitution without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.

  • Theme #2: Women at the Naval Academy preclude the development of warriors. In "Women Can't Fight," Webb expresses the view that the presence of women poisons the preparation of men for combat command and that the process of training for combat leadership at the Naval Academy has been sterilized as a result.

Consider the implications of this particular theme: If the presence of women in the college experience prevents the brutality that is necessary to the inculcation of warriorhood, the Marine Corps is in deep trouble. After all, Naval Academy graduates are a minority within the Marine Corps officer cadre; most of that cadre went to college with women and missed out on being physically abused by upperclassmen. Does that mean that the majority of the officers in the Marine Corps are incompetent warriors?

The answer, of course, is no; non-academy Marine Corps officers learn to be warriors at Quantico, which is the same place Naval Academy graduates learn to be the kind of warriors the Marine Corps wants.

  • Theme #3: Military women are the beneficiaries of a pervasive, pro-women double standard. In "Women Can't Fight," Webb grumbles that women are advantaged at every turn. He is incensed by the fact that the media spend more time interviewing women than men, thereby conferring on women undeserved attention and falsely inferred merit.

From the beginning, there has been complaining about the fact that there are differences in the physical readiness tests. The women, it turned out, could receive a given grade with lower scores than were required from the men for the same grade. Of course, the men seldom mention the fact that they are allowed to weigh about 30 pounds more than a woman of their same height before being placed on a weight-control program. When that difference is pointed out, they tend to have a sudden burst of insight in which they see that physiological and anatomical differences really do need to be taken into account.

The unwarranted litany of half-truths with regard to alleged double standards creates-and, in my judgment, is calculated to create-resentment among the men.

There is a particular aspect of the politics of resentment on which Webb's writings seem fixated, namely, resentment against those who ascribe leadership abilities to women. He asserts in "Women Can't Fight" that women were being rated higher in leadership by officers than they had been by their male peers. Things had gone so far by the time Webb wrote his article that peer ratings had been discontinued. Webb was mortified; this meant that there was no way for a woman's male peers to prevent her from being assigned to leadership positions, given what he saw as the craven propensity of the company officers to impute unmerited favor to female midshipmen.

Webb does not explain why those male company officers, who had graduated from an all-male Naval Academy in which physical abuse was the order of the day, would be so lacking in moral courage, so unable to deal with the stress engendered by pressure from above that they would lie on command about the abilities of the women in their companies. The implication is that women were unworthy and that all the men knew this, but the officers were under pressure to artificially and unfairly build them up. Only their male peers would tell the truth about women on their peer evaluations.

The reality was somewhat different. The male peers were secreting bigotry from every pore. There was not the slightest possibility that the women would be rated fairly by the men, who deplored their very presence at the institution. Further, there is no possibility that Webb did not know this; in "Women Can't Fight," he frequently quoted male midshipmen's disparaging comments about women.

Nothing so disadvantages a person as to be psychologically rejected by his or her peers; to be told both blatantly and more subtly that you are not wanted; to have your competence questioned on the basis of invidious comparison. However difficult plebe year may have been for men when Webb was a midshipman or at the time "Women Can't Fight" was published, it was made even more difficult by an order of magnitude for women by the threat and practice of bigotry. When an upperclass leader uses his position of power to refer publicly to a female midshipman in degrading and humiliating gender-related terms, when she must listen to and even participate in demeaning marching chants in which she is the object of ridicule, the stress engendered far exceeds that of a beating with a cricket bat. The consequences of that kind of psychological sadism include evisceration of her self-esteem and instruction for her peers that she is an inferior being; that she does not belong; that she is a prime candidate for the "worthless" pile. Nothing could more rapidly destroy unit cohesion.

"Women Can't Fight" has been the single greatest purveyor of degradation and humiliation on the basis of gender that academy women have had to endure. Men, on the other hand, were not mocked or ridiculed because of their gender. They were not required by their peers to go outside their own identity to avoid overt harassment. They did not face the threat of psychological isolation. In other words, men were unstressed relative to women.

According to Mr. Webb's dictum, then, every woman graduate thereby is more prepared to be a warrior than all of her male counterparts.

The tragedy of all this is that the interference with the integration process, which should not have happened at all, would have been over in a relatively short period were it not for the brooding presence of "Women Can't Fight." Year after year, this article has taught and continues to teach a certain number of men about the insufferable affront of the presence of women at the Naval Academy.

  • Theme #4: Women in the military remain a gigantic social experiment . As when it was used to oppose the racial integration of the military in the 1950s and 1960s, this argument is an attempt to deceive, to make uninformed persons believe that the only basis on which a particular minority could be deserving of entry into the military is that the military leadership had capitulated to groups with an alien agenda. Those outside groups, it is contended, are intent on furthering their own social and political ends even if the consequence is to diminish the capability of the armed forces to fight and survive.

Applying the appellation of social experiment to women in the military, as he does repeatedly in the January 1997 article in The Weekly Standard, Webb continues to disseminate this propaganda. But it is simply not true that women in the military are a social experiment; we have decades of experience by which to assess the performance of women. The issue for women in the Navy for more than 40 years was service on combatant ships and aircraft-the exclusion laws applied there and nowhere else and we have plenty of data showing that women can fly planes and serve on ships in a superb fashion. Neither of these types of service is a social experiment.

Service in the infantry was never the issue for women at the Naval Academy. Nevertheless, a significant portion of Webb's objection to women in any combat role was addressed by demonstrating how difficult it would be for women to serve in the infantry. Webb had to have been aware that the legislative battle was with regard to service on ships and aircraft, but the case against women is, of course, much harder to make in those two realms-hence the shift to talking so extensively about women in the infantry. If this was not an intent to deceive, it was a splendid imitation.

  • Theme #5: An officer's priority of loyalties may be disregarded in the pursuit of ideology. In " The War on the Military Culture" Webb points out that military officers are taught that "policies that were strongly opposed while under consideration will be just as strongly implemented once [they are] decided upon." That, of course, is a fundamental undergirding of the professional military ethic. Yet, in "Women Can't Fight," Webb quotes midshipmen who speak words that defame and slander academy women. It seems clear that Webb approves ofand sometimes adds to-this vilification. In no instance does he reprimand the men for their statements, which are in opposition to the legislation passed by Congress that admitted women to the academy. Instead, he urges that male midshipmen who oppose women at the academy should be allowed to say so and to say so without fear of retribution. He calls prohibitions on such activity censorship.

If ever there was an action intended to break down or prevent the formation of unit cohesion, it is the action Webb advocates. Urging that midshipmen be permitted publicly to speak out in opposition to the law of the land while they remain on active duty is inexcusable. Leaders are free to disagree up until the decision is made; at that point they either get on board or find another line of work. Midshipmen or officers who insist on proclaiming in public that women should not be at the academy should be ushered out of the military into civilian society, where they may contemplate their bigotry in a setting in which they probably will do less harm.

Midshipmen take an oath to support and defend the Constitution. That document contains a provision that grants to Congress the authority to make regulations governing the armed forces. The legislation that opened the service academies to women is a legitimate exercise of that authority. It also is the supreme law of the land as defined by the Constitution. For anyone who has taken the oath of office, obedience is not optional. Midshipmen, from the moment that law was passed in 1975, were under obligation to obey not only the letter but also the spirit of the law. Their duty was to do all in their power to facilitate its implementation. Webb's discussions in "Women Can't Fight" had to have a corrupting influence on male midshipmen, reinforcing the negative views they held, letting them know that an authority figure agreed with their perspective.

  • Theme #6: Webb's experience as a midshipman in the 1960s reflects the experience of all midshipmen before then, as well. Webb describes the Naval Academy as having had a consistent approach until the women arrived. I have no doubt that he describes the Naval Academy culture in 1964-1968 quite accurately-other of his classmates have confirmed much of what he writes-but on the matter of predecessor classes, he fails badly.

I graduated 11 years before Webb, in 1957. I never experienced a single moment of physical abuse as a plebe, nor am I aware of any physical abuse being suffered by my roommates or company mates. During plebe summer, the time of most significant stress today, my classmates and I did not even have upperclass present. A solitary, recently commissioned ensign shepherded each company through the two-month process. It was a time in which we learned much, but being away from home was about the most stressful thing we experienced. When the brigade returned in the fall there was plenty of stress, but it did not extend to physical abuse. Nor were we as exhausted as are today's midshipmen; we slept eight hours per night, and our academic load was significantly lighter.

I also talked with several of our more illustrious predecessors to find out about their four years at Annapolis. In particular, I was interested to talk with retired Vice Admirals James Stockdale and William Lawrence. These men were prisoners of war for more than five years during the Vietnam War. For his service in the prison camps Admiral Stockdale was awarded the Medal of Honor. Admiral Lawrence served as Superintendent of the Naval Academy during the time "Women Can't Fight" was published. These leaders and warriors confirmed that their academy experience was like the one I knew and not like what Webb apparently has come to believe always existed.

  • Theme #7: Leaders are not necessarily accountable for the performance of their followers. When Webb writes about the 1991 Tailhook convention he advocates an approach that absolves leadership for its obvious abdication of responsibility and accountability. He frequently interprets the events as having been caused by a small number of drunken aviators and rejects the notion that Navy culture was implicated in any way. In an article in The Washington Post entitled "The Navy Adrift," an adaptation of his speech at the Naval Institute's 1996 Annapolis Seminar, he described Tailhook as an event that should have been in the news for three to five days. His comments then, as always, avoided the larger context of Tailhook.

Tailhook is not about some number of drunken aviators; it is only peripherally about sexual assaults and other forms of sexual misconduct. Rather, it is about staggering professional deficiencies-in truth telling; in respect for persons; in military discipline; in subordination of the military to civilian control; in understanding that unit cohesion and hence combat effectiveness is incompatible with bigotry. Webb's attempts to trivialize Tailhook are without redeeming social or military value.

When Webb advocates punishing the "few drunken aviators" but never advocates holding the leadership accountable, one wonders if he has the slightest clue about the obligations of command. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in June 1996, Republican Senators Kay Bailey Hutchinson and Daniel Coates pointed out a portion of those responsibilities. Section 5947 of Title 10 U.S. Code establishes the positive obligation of commanding officers to demonstrate "a good example of virtue. . .; to be vigilant in inspecting the conduct of all persons who are placed under their command; to guard against and suppress all dissolute and immoral practices."

The Senators pointed out that the "statute does not reflect contemporary situational ethics, political correctness, or feminist pressure. It was first set forth in the Regulations for the Navy drafted by John Adams and approved by the Continental Congress in 1775, enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1779, and codified at the express request of the Navy in 1956." It is an expression of the bedrock culture toward which Navy leadership and anyone who writes about Navy leadership-should aspire.

Mr. Webb's views are not likely to change. Based on the politics of resentment, they are the cause of significant harm to the naval service and to the military in general. They are destructive of unit cohesion. Somewhere along the line it will be important to get into the hands of students, perhaps in a core course, written material that discusses the implications for institutional culture that are embedded in Webb's writing. One thing is certain. Silence will not do. The issue is too important. There must be no more free rides for those who would undermine what this great institution is about.


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