The Magazine

The War on the Military Culture

The presence of women in the armed forces raises unresolved problems.

Jan 20, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 18 • By JAMES WEBB
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During the summer of 1975, a debate of historic proportions occurred on the floor of the House of Representatives. The debate was significant not because of its rhetoric, which was rather shopworn, or because the issue under discussion was dramatic -- a bill mandating the admission of women to the service academies. Rather, the parliamentary methods used by the bill's proponents and their method of argument inaugurated a new era in civil- military relations and have dominated military personnel issues ever since.

The late Sam Stratton of New York, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and a proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, introduced the measure directly on the House floor as a rider to that year's defense appropriations bill. With the avid assistance of several feminist legislators including Bella Abzug of New York and Pat Schroeder of Colorado, Stratton argued essentially that answering the question of whether women should be permitted to attend the service academies had nothing to do with the manner in which those institutions prepared young men for leadership in combat. Noting that "only" 90 percent of the graduates of those institutions had served in combat-designated billets (the others had been designated "not physically qualified" before graduation), Stratton argued that "the sole issue is a simple matter of equality. . . . All we need is to establish the basic legislative policy that we wish to remove sex discrimination when it comes to admissions to the service academies."

The debate added two new dimensions to the way the Congress and other activists would address military issues, particularly those affecting female assimilation. First, Congress took its vote without detailed legislative hearings that would have allowed the military leadership to express its views -- a decision that, in effect, told America's military that its perspective was neither respected nor trusted where matters of progressive social policy were concerned.

Second, by focusing the debate on "simple equality" rather than the effect of injecting females into the already complicated and tension-enhancing environment of the operating military, Stratton and company managed to leave a much larger, more intangible, and far more complex issue on the table. And there it has lain ever since.

As a result, no effort has ever really been made to examine the issues raised by the ever-expanding sexual mixing inside the military's unique culture and its requirement of absolute fairness when it comes to administering punishments and rewards. The military is, at its core, a coercive institution, fraught with pressures and unwanted tasks. It relies on a code of conduct that demands egalitarian treatment in every aspect of discipline, recognition, and the subjection of its officers and its ranks to life-threatening risk. When double standards are introduced in matters of physical training and performance, they work against these very criteria.

Furthermore, the sexual jealousies, courtship rituals, and favoritism that are the hallmarks of romantic relationships are inevitable when males and females are brought into close quarters in isolated, intense environments. But these very phenomena inevitably corrode all notions of fairness as the military defines them.

These are matters of the utmost seriousness. They are at the center of most of the concerns regarding the assimilation of females into the military. And other than a hapless patchwork of unevenly enforced "fraternization" guidelines, they have never, not once in the 21 years since Sam Stratton's post-Vietnam gambit, been the subject of genuine scrutiny, much less a national debate.

Of course, many of those who voted with Stratton were not only seeking to provide opportunities for women where appropriate to the military's unique mission and operational circumstances, but were actively interested in undoing its historic culture. For those other than the quasi-revolutionaries who took delight in the chaos into which our country had fallen, the summer of 1975 in Washington was a bleak time. Following the embarrassment of our withdrawal from Vietnam, respect for military leadership was at its historic nadir. A year before, President Nixon had resigned in disgrace, and his resignation helped elect the so-called Watergate Congress, 76 Democratic freshmen in the House and eight in the Senate, with a surprising number of activists elected from formerly safe Republican districts. A majority of them had run almost solely on anti-military and antiwar themes. One of the first acts of the Watergate Congress was to vote down a supplementary appropriation for the beleaguered South Vietnamese military, virtually guaranteeing the collapse that occurred three months later when a refurbished North Vietnamese army launched a major offensive. All things military had become targets gleefully fired on.