I deplore the arguments James Webb made in his November 1979 Washingtonian article, “Women Can’t Fight.” His misogynistic statements are indefensible in my eyes. In addition, it is unfortunate this article came at the absolute worst possible time for the brave women of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1980. The article and arguments within it were weaponized and used against women throughout the following decades, and some of the beliefs espoused in it are still held by a small minority of small-minded men within the military.
I only can imagine the pain these women felt as they approached possibly the most important milestone in their lives, graduation from a prestigious military academy, only to have their accomplishments diminished and degraded by a prominent graduate. That pain cannot be erased.
With that said, the recent uproar and Webb’s subsequent rejection of the Distinguished Graduate Award are examples of moral absolutism run amok. Humans are not black and white, but rather gray, with both good and bad aspects. Webb is a war hero, having received the Navy Cross (one honor less than the Medal of Honor). He is also a best-selling author, former Secretary of the Navy, and most recently a U.S. Senator. If he is not a distinguished graduate of the Naval Academy, then who is?
We all have said and believed things that we later found to be regrettable or untrue, but this does not mean that we are bad people. In fact, life is about growth through and beyond previous beliefs in pursuit of our best selves.
Is Senator John McCain a “distinguished graduate” of the Naval Academy? I believe he is, despite his votes and advocacy against making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday, as well as his consistent legislative actions against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. Simply because we disagree with certain actions or the inaction of a person does not mean he or she is bad. This false dichotomy is becoming more common in American political discourse, which is a disturbing trend. Most of our Founding Fathers owned slaves; John F. Kennedy was almost assuredly antigay; and Jim Webb held misogynistic beliefs in 1979. Does this mean these leaders are entirely evil or unworthy of any admiration? If so, then roughly every 40 years we will need to strip the names off of every building in Washington, D.C., because the beliefs of those individuals for which they are named will become archaic. I find this proposition untenable and silly, but we seem to be heading down this path.
The real question raised by this debacle: "Is Webb's crime that he held the beliefs, or that he wrote them down?" Because if it is the former, I am confident that at least a few men who have received this award from classes in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s believe or believed at some point far worse than anything Webb has written. Many were even in positions to push for the integration or fair treatment of women and did not, yet they are all honored as distinguished graduates. If it is the latter, Webb has disavowed much of what he wrote and through his actions has helped women in the naval profession, proving he recognizes that his beliefs were wrong. This does not absolve him from writing the article, but it does represent the intellectual growth we all experience as we mature.
People make mistakes, including believing and saying things that are hurtful to others, precisely because we are all human. We are growing, learning, and modifying our beliefs based on experience. Unfortunately, we experience growing pains when incorrect or vile beliefs are entertained. If we in perpetuity are held to account for what we believed in decades past, we will be guilty in some form forever.
I reject this absolutist view of people. I prefer to look at people holistically. Jim Webb succeeded in every aspect of military and professional life, and I believe the vast majority of his actions as a Marine, Secretary of the Navy, and Senator improved the lives of those he represented and led.
In the case of James Webb, I believe on the whole he has done far more good than harm. No person is perfect or without blame. While it was necessary for him to be held to account for his shameful statements, to say now he is not a distinguished graduate of the Naval Academy is misguided.
Midshipman Second Class Kirk Wolff, U.S. Navy, Class of 2018, U.S. Naval Academy
Former Senator James Webb’s name is synonymous with misogyny to female U.S. Naval Academy alumni whose military careers were harmed by his 1979 essay “Women Can’t Fight.” Written while he was a professor at the Naval Academy, when the institution’s first female graduates were in their final academic year, Webb argued that “no benefit to anyone can come from women serving in combat.”
The U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association brought this essay again to the fore by nominating Webb for one of this year’s Distinguished Graduate Awards, conferred at the end of March. The award is given annually to five alumni determined to embody the mission of the Naval Academy, possessing “personal character which epitomizes the traits we expect in our officer corps.” Webb, a member of the class of the 1968, was nominated by a board comprised of all men. Not a single woman has yet been recognized with the award.
It is clear from interviews with more than two dozen Naval Academy alumni, classes of 1980–2014, that Webb’s words continue to harm servicewomen a generation after he wrote them. Rebecca Myers, a 2003 graduate of the Naval Academy, recalled, “When I started at the Naval Academy in 1999, senior male midshipmen specifically cited Jim Webb as the reason we shouldn’t be at the school. The impact he has had is devastating and lasting. He continues to influence the school’s ‘Old Guard,’ and the award nomination has encouraged some of my male classmates to argue that ‘Webb was right.’”
In his essay, Webb called midshipman dormitory Bancroft Hall a “horny women’s dream,” and he undermined his own students by writing, “I have never met a woman, including the dozens of female midshipmen I encountered during my recent semester as a professor at the Naval Academy, whom I would trust to provide those men with combat leadership.”
Maureen Kane, a 2008 graduate of the Naval Academy, took a role in leading the opposition to the Alumni Association’s recognition of Webb with the award. She explained, “The U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association’s choice to nominate Webb for a lifetime achievement award ensures the continued relevancy of what he wrote. It’s a major part of his legacy.”
After significant pressure from alumni, including hundreds who signed a petition denouncing the award, Webb announced that he would not accept the award. However, he has neither recanted nor fully apologized for his remarks. Decades of women leading, fighting, and dying in combat, particularly in post-9/11 conflicts, apparently have not changed his mind. In a halfhearted apology, Webb lamented, “To the extent that this article subjected women at the Academy or the armed forces to undue hardship, I remain profoundly sorry.” He appears sorry that his words were harmful, not that he wrote them.
Webb’s essay still carries significant weight, especially to those who view military service as a proving ground of masculinity where women have no place. The Naval Academy Alumni Association’s selection of him for the award is a tacit endorsement of the sexism he fostered and the unit cohesion he poisoned.
Webb’s status as a combat-decorated Marine is relevant only in that his chronic disrespect of servicewomen is dissonant with the services’ values. The military gives out awards for valor, and he has them. It is precisely because he is a highly respected public servant that Webb has a responsibility to demonstrate leadership by apologizing and recanting. His perspective should have changed after nearly 40 years.
Lieutenant Andrea N. Goldstein, U.S. Navy Reserve, served on active duty 2009–16. She is a master of arts in law and diplomacy candidate at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
James Webb once wrote: “I do not understand such censorship. It is as if one statement of dissent left unrepudiated might beget a tidal wave of agreement.” Those words were in his famous—some might say infamous—essay in the Washingtonian magazine. In fact, he was calling out political correctness before the term had been coined.
“Women Can’t Fight” was controversial at the time because it gave voice to a widely held sentiment across the nation—i.e., women should not be in service academies or combat roles. Webb lost that argument and moved on, but those offended by his thinking never did. They claim it was an antiwoman “manifesto” used by men to harass women. Despite the fact that women faced open hostility for three-and-a-half years before Webb’s article, women’s groups and some Navy brass have tried to assign all responsibility for misogyny at military academies to Jim Webb because of one article.
The issue recently came to a head when Webb, under pressure from Navy brass and some senior alumni, declined to accept the Naval Academy Alumni Association’s Distinguished Graduate Award. Webb graduated in the Class of 1968, commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, and led troops in combat in Vietnam. He was awarded the Navy Cross for gallantry in combat, along with the Silver Star, two Bronze Star medals, and two Purple Heart medals. When he left active duty he became a lawyer, a best-selling author, a professor at the Naval Academy for a semester, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, Secretary of the Navy (SecNav), and a U.S. Senator.
As SecNav, Webb opened more opportunities to women than any of his predecessors, and he has apologized numerous times for the pain his 1979 essay may have caused. But none of that seems to matter. To some, there never can be redemption for one who violates political orthodoxy.
When Webb faced confirmation hearings for Secretary of the Navy in 1987, ran for U.S. Senate in 2006, ran for President in 2016, and was selected to be one of the 2017 Distinguished Graduates, some Naval Academy alumni spoke out against him because of his 1979 essay. They claim his 38-year-old article still is read today. Ironically, the reason it is read is that women keep calling attention to the article.
Most people who read Webb’s article today see it as a relic of the times. Nevertheless, most readers—then and now—disagree with Webb’s stance on women at the service academies, which he expressed during the Carter administration. In addition, most readers will recognize the vindictiveness of political correctness that seeks to punish and silence dissenting views, rather than proving them wrong through open debate.
Webb’s thesis discussed the Israeli experience with women in combat, experience the U.S. military did not have. Now, after more than a decade of fighting in the Middle East, the United States has data. Before pushing women into Special Forces, can there be open discussion about the successes—and failures—of women in combat? Can we discuss the prevalence of sexual assault in the military or the impacts of pregnancies on deployments? Can we ask why female veterans are at higher risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, musculoskeletal injury, and homelessness, and how more intensive combat roles may disproportionately affect them?
Last summer, then–Navy Secretary Ray Mabus laid out the rationale to allow transgender service members to serve openly rather than being discharged. Unless political correctness rules, why would not the facts—transgender people require a lifetime of powerful hormone treatment and psychological counseling, and have statistically significant higher suicide rates—give military leaders pause?
It hasn’t because too many military leaders have seen what happens when people speak out in violation of political orthodoxy. The recent pressure on Webb to decline the Distinguished Graduate Award is Exhibit A.
President John Adams famously said, “Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.” The message sent by the Navy through the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association is: “Not on My Watch!”
Commander Michael Collins, U.S. Navy Reserve (Retired), Class of 1984, U.S. Naval Academy
The fact that James Webb, class of 1968, declined to accept the Naval Academy’s Alumni Association’s Distinguished Graduate Award because a few female Naval Academy graduates objected to his 1979 essay “Women Can’t Fight” is wrong.
Okay, you disagree with his arguments in that essay. Still, you cannot deny the total body of work Webb has produced for this nation as a military and civilian leader. Webb is indeed a “distinguished graduate” and has conducted himself in a manner clearly deserving of that recognition.
At the time of the essay’s publication, I was a Navy lieutenant instructor in the Seamanship and Navigation Department at the Naval Academy. Like many graduates, the idea of women at the Academy in my mind was at best horrible and at worst stupid. My views changed dramatically when I witnessed the quality and dedication of the female midshipmen in the Class of 1980 and subsequent classes during my two-year tour of duty.
Having said that, civilian and military leaders will do well to return to Webb’s essay to review and discuss (without regard to political correctness) some of his assertions—specifically, about women in ground combat roles. The decisions to place women in foxholes is, in my view, stupid. But again, several female members serving in our armed forces, specifically the Army, have distinguished themselves in combat in the Middle East. Is this the right thing to do? I don’t know. For me, it should remain an open question for a civilized society to examine.
Political correctness has become a near fatal disease in our free society. Look at what is happening in our public schools, many colleges and universities, and our nation’s military. If you don’t agree with the agenda, there is something very wrong with you, and you will be punished. While I am not a fan of James Webb, his dedication and service more than qualify him for this prestigious award.
I was brought up in a newspaper family where open and honest discourse was a normal part of life. We may agree or disagree with someone’s view of the world. Listen, discuss, agree (or agree to disagree), and then have a bourbon and water and get on with your life. What has happened to that concept?
William Brooks III, Class of 1969, U.S. Naval Academy