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.

Even with the restoration of American respect for the military in the 1980s, the effort to destroy the military culture from the outside has continued unabated, frequently through the use of "wedge" issues involving women. Major changes in female military roles often have been instituted either against the advice of the senior military or without their substantive input. Events such as the 1991 Tailhook debacle have been seized upon and used by feminists to attack the military culture and bring about major concessions.

Right now we are seeing this same drama being played out with the recent revelations of sexual abuse in the Army's sexually mixed training commands. The ink was not yet dry on the initial reports of drill instructors' having engaged in consensual and nonconsensual sex with female underlings before editorials and op-ed articles were excoriating the Army's "cultural" failings with respect to women. The secretary of the Army has appointed a commission to study the Army's cultural problems, a commission the Wall Street Journal recently reported is dominated by those who wish to expand female roles still further.

After two decades of such pressures, the time has come to examine the impetus and motivations behind these continuing attacks, and what their overall impact has been on the military as an institution that prevents, and fights, wars. What is it about the military that causes these persistent efforts to reach beyond a justifiable condemnation of incidents of misconduct and impute malice to the military culture -- and especially military men -- every time a problem comes up?

The roots of this assault on the military culture go back thirty years, to an odd dovetailing of the feminist and antiwar movements. A principal focus of the antiwar movement, symbolized by its decision to march on the Pentagon rather than on Congress in October 1967, was to demean the notion of military service, as the surest way to discredit the conduct of the Vietnam war. At the same time, a frequent feminist argument was that politicians who used military service as a credential 1or election and advancement were unfair to women, who had no opportunity to gain the recognition that such service frequently provided.

Another important but rarely mentioned facet of this era is what former Washington Post reporter Susan Jacoby has termed the "mythic nonsense of the conscience-stricken young man who made the agonizing choice to stay home in the classroom while his brothers fought in the jungles of Southeast Asia." Such ethical gymnastics led Jacoby to wonder "whether the millions of men my age who avoided the draft may feel 'unmanned' in a way that no woman can truly understand."

As an example of the far-reaching impact of Jacoby's observation, consider Harvard. In World War II, 691 Harvard alumni were killed in action, but of the 12,595 who graduated from Harvard College in the years 1962 to 1972, only 12 died in Vietnam (and this even though ROTC units were in place at Harvard for most of the war). The so-called best and brightest from all the elite schools, whose predecessors had led the way in other wars, stayed home and went to graduate school as their peers marched off to suffer 58,000 dead. The dynamic of their collective but unspoken feeling of guilt, and its transference into a persistent diminution of military service, has never been fully aired in our national discussion, since those high achievers who did not serve soon moved into dominant positions in academia, publishing, film, and the media.

These important social forces came together with a vengeance following the Vietnam war. In its drive for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, the feminist movement saw the military as its optimal "peripheral" battle. To win on the issue of women in combat, the most quintessentially male obligation in any society, would moot all other debates regarding female roles. For many males who did not serve, particularly the high achievers who wished no blemish on their reputations, the "demasculinization" of the military was a natural deterrent to any attack on their manhood as their youthful actions came to be viewed in retrospect.

Others who recognized the illogic of this social experiment, including numerous conservative icons, remained silent, for to speak out could be self- defeating. Given the nasty tenor of any such debate, their lack of military service would certainly be used against them -- not by veterans and military officials, who would have welcomed their support, but by those who wished to stifle dissent.

As these political realities have developed, the military has had to struggle under its own set of unkind realities. Military leaders from their first days in training are steeped in a culture that accepts and believes in civilian control. And they are doers. A policy that was strongly opposed while under consideration will be just as strongly implemented once it is decided upon. Furthermore, generals at the three-star level are selected with (at a minimum) heavy participation from the civilian leadership, and those at the four-star level are chosen at the complete discretion of civilians, allowing politicians to shape the top levels of military leadership. When, as in the present administration, views on the expansion of female roles become a litmus test for advancement, arguments questioning accepted political wisdom are not conducive to the possibility of reaching the very highest levels.

With little support from the outside, and in a culture that demands performance, those "in the ranks" have learned that pointing out the difficulties inherent in an undertaking as politically volatile as the assimilation of women will quickly end a career. At the same time, enormous pressure is exerted on them to accentuate the positive aspects of this social experiment and ignore or diminish the negative. But male members of the military know that things aren't that simple. As is always true when people are asked to believe in and promote an image they know to be untrue, cynicism soon explodes. This cynicism feeds a backlash, which increases tensions even in areas where women perform well and where their presence is not counterproductive to the military's mission.

These hard realities have created the greatest potential cultural change in our military's history, and if matters are left in this state, we run the risk of destroying all notions of leadership as we have known it. The fundamental disconnect is this: In many areas where females have been introduced into the military, leaders imbued with the imperative of ethical conduct are constantly challenged to hold back on the truth or risk their futures.

And so politicians and media commentators usually end up arguing over only half the story. They are right to call for investigations of commanders who have not dealt preemptively with sexual harassment and unpermitted sex among members of their command. Women forced into unwilling sexual conduct are put into an inexcusable hell when their superior is the culprit, and there is no one to whom they feel they can report the crime.

But politicians and the media are blaming the wrong social forces for such problems. They have not been able to hear from those who have firsthand knowledge of what the sexual integration of the military has meant in matters of military conduct. Consider the commander who knows that the culprit in such situations is not one or a half-dozen individuals, but a system that throws healthy young men and women together inside a volatile, isolated crucible of emotions -- a ship at sea or basic training, to take two notable examples. Whom does this commander tell if he believes that the experiment itself has not worked, that the compressed and emotional environment in which these young men and women have been thrust together by unknowing or uncaring policymakers actually encourages disruptive sexual activity?

The commander knows the political mantra for twenty years has been that sexual misconduct is simply one more cultural problem, and that, like racial insensitivity, it can be overcome by a few lectures and command supervision. He knows also that this is wrong. But to speak his mind or force the issue would most likely be his undoing.

A case in point is Commander John Carey, who took command of the destroyer Curtis Wilbur after a fast-track start to his naval career. Soon after, Carey observed two female crew members kissing and spoke to the ship's command chief petty officer of his concern about the disruption such behavior would cause. "Captain," the master chief replied, according to the Washingtonian, "there's f -- ing going on on this ship 24 hours a day, and there's nothing you can do about it." Carey tried to do something about it and was soon relieved of command for "physically and verbally abusing his crew."

This not-so-subtle pressure to look the other way unless conduct is overt and decidedly nonconsensual permeates civilian policy toward the military. In February 1988, shortly before I resigned as secretary of the Navy, I returned from a trip to U.S. military facilities on Iceland. During a staff meeting with secretary of defense Frank Carlucci, I reported that I had been informed that 51 percent of the single enlisted Air Force females and 48 percent of the single enlisted Navy females stationed in Iceland were pregnant.

Carlucci, who had announced in the first weeks of his tenure that he wished to remove the Reagan administration's policy of restricting women from combat, was unconcerned. "What else is there to do on Iceland?" he replied, drawing titillated chuckles from several sycophantic male military officers at the table. Needless to say, there was no follow-up on this or any other systemic failure, and the uniformed military was given the word through the grapevine that passes from Pentagon aide to general's aide and on down the line that, no matter what written policies might have existed, the leadership was not concerned about sexual fraternization.

The question becomes: Does it matter? And the answer is: In the military, it does.

It is difficult to explain to those who have not served in the operational military, and even to many military females who do not comprehend the ethos of units in which women do not serve, why the military is, and must remain, different from the civilian world when it comes to these issues. Next to the clergy, the military is the most values-driven culture in our society. I am not speaking of individual morals; many superb soldiers have been known as " liberty risks" when they are not on duty. Rather, it relates to an impeccable group ethos. Those who serve together must behave toward one another according to a set of unassailable and equally enforced standards -- honesty, accountability, sacrifice, and absolute fairness in risk, promotions, and rewards.

The military is, in this sense, a socialist meritocracy. It functions not on money but on nonmaterial recognition. Do something good and you receive a good fitness report, an award, a meritorious mast, promotion to higher rank. Do something bad and you are reprimanded, court-martialed, jailed, demoted. You cannot quit your duties if you don't like your job or your boss or the place they're sending you. Even more astounding, you might be asked to die on behalf of a person or a policy you don't even like. In this environment, fairness is not only crucial, it is the coin of the realm. Fairness is the guarantee that puts credibility into rank, awards, and recognition. And such recognition determines a person's future.

The military was the first federal institution to create a truly level playing field for minorities. I grew up as the son of a career military officer in the newly integrated military, and I saw it work even through the difficult period of the late 1960s and early 1970s when I was a serving officer of Marines.

Now, to the extent that it is workable, the military has an obligation to provide the same gateways for females, and we should not lose sight either of the talent that many females bring to our armed forces or the wide array of federal benefits that are accorded them for their service in appropriate roles.

But neither should we delude ourselves into thinking that assimilation of females into military occupational specialties is the same as breaching racial and ethnic barriers. Eliminating cultural bias requires intellectual conditioning to break down old attitudes. But eliminating or neutralizing an attraction to the opposite sex requires much sterner and more imaginative therapy, and is probably impossible.

But that is exactly what will have to happen if the military is to work without disruption in the operating units where "group cohesion" is the key to performance, not to mention in the isolated environments of long-term deployments or basic training.

In these circumstances, it is essential that favoritism of all types be minimized and eliminated. But we all know there is no greater or more natural bias than that of an individual toward a beloved. And few emotions are more powerful, or more distracting, than those surrounding the pursuit of, competition for, or the breaking off of amorous relations. In the administration of discipline, benefits, and life-threatening risk, it takes an unusually strong personality to set aside passionate feelings in order to deny a spouse or lover a much-desired benefit or to expose that person to great risk. Nor is it possible to decide an issue in favor of a spouse or lover without at least appearing to be judging matters unfairly.

And there is another problem. Consider a ship on a long sea deployment of perhaps 100 days without a port call, a common enough event in our Navy's recent history. Assume, as is likely, that some members of a mixed crew begin sexual relationships while at sea. What of the rest? They will not have the opportunity to find a partner for months. The inescapable feelings of resentment, competition, or anger that follow create a powder keg of emotions that cannot help but affect morale, discipline, and attention to duty.

No edict from above will ever eliminate sexual activity when men and women are thrust together at close quarters. Watching civilian and military leaders struggle mightily not to see this verity, I am often reminded of Douglas MacArthur's observation, shortly after arriving in postwar Japan, upon being told that a large number of soldiers had taken up with Japanese women. Asked if such conduct should be curtailed, MacArthur demurred. "I would never give an order that I know I can't enforce," he said.

MacArthur knew that soldiers are usually young, physical, and aggressive, and that from time to time they will find ways to relieve their sexual frustrations with consenting females. But at night MacArthur's soldiers returned to their barracks. And when their units were called upon to perform their missions, the objects of their antics and desires were not right there beside them, confusing their notions of duty, discipline, and sacrifice.

Present-day generals and admirals, constantly under political pressure, sometimes unsure of where to draw the line between military and civilian control, often constrained by legal edicts, and wishing to be fair to those females who do perform well, have issued unenforceable orders rather than confront the politicians who dreamed them up. They have muddled about for years from incident to incident while many junior leaders have been forced to deal directly with impossible, ethically compromising positions.

And in one of the supreme ironies of the current debate, the same feminists who have long castigated military men, and even the military culture itself, for recreational antics with foreign women while on liberty, now defend or explain away such conduct if it occurs on post or aboard ship between consenting soldiers or sailors.

Who really wants to expand this continued sexual assimilation? A recent study of soldiers by Harvard researcher Laura Miller suggests that Army women do not. Only 3 percent of the enlisted women surveyed believed they "should be treated exactly like men and serve in the combat arms just like men." Sixty-one percent indicated a belief that sexual harassment would increase if combat billets were opened up to females. An equal percentage believed that women should not be drafted, or should be drafted for service other than close combat. Only 11 percent of enlisted women and 14 percent of the female officers surveyed indicated that they would volunteer for a combat role if one were offered.

These are the realists who have lived in the powdering atmosphere. They know precisely what they want out of their military service. They also know precisely those circumstances under which unwanted difficulties arise. Many of them have rightly grown weary of being pawns in the grand schemes of sociologists, agenda feminists, and a small core of political-activist military officers, and of having to live with the often sexually abrasive results of such activism.

The time has finally come to cease examining these issues solely from the perspective of how the military culture should adjust itself to women. While women make valuable contributions on a variety of levels, the military is and always has been a predominantly male profession. Its leaders should demand that any adjustments in sexual roles meet the historically appropriate criterion of improving performance, and should stop salving the egos of a group of never-satisfied social engineers.

A return to normalcy might cause a retrenchment in areas where women serve. The United States might want to learn from other countries with their own experience of women at arms. After World War II, the Soviet army completely abandoned the use of women in the operating military (they had been brought in owing to the loss of some 7 million male soldiers in combat). The Israelis at several points during their recent history have adjusted the roles of females. Contrary to popular mythology, it is against Israeli law for a woman to serve in combat -- and "combat" is a term interpreted far more broadly there than it is here.

A logical first, immediate step for the U.S. military to take is that basic training should be sexually separated, as it has been throughout history until just the past few years. Beyond that, each service chief should order, on his own initiative, a full and honest review of the extent to which current sexual practices are damaging traditional standards of command, discipline, fairness, and cohesion. Where damage is being done, policies should be changed. Where sexual mixing does work, policies should be enhanced. Such a review should not be within the power of civilian service secretaries or members of Congress to obstruct, since "good order and discipline" is the ultimate responsibility of each service chief -- a responsibility that many would argue has been abandoned in recent decades when it comes to this issue.

If these senior leaders prove too hamstrung, too compromised, or too politicized to take such action, then the present Congress should take steps similar to those of its Watergate-era predecessor and begin the process of dramatic change itself. Except that this time, the change would be for the purpose of preserving military traditions, values, and leadership rather than subjugating them to external political agendas.

Political and military leaders must have the courage to ask dearly in what areas our current policies toward women in the military are hurting, rather than helping, the task of defending the United States. We have now endured two decades of experimentation, and data on the experiment's results would be voluminous if they were allowed to be examined. It has been a long time since a military leader of virtually any rank was free to speak openly about this without fear of retribution. And the difficulties surrounding the good order and discipline of our armed forces will not abate until the leaders themselves are encouraged not only to point to areas in which the new policy is working, but to speak honestly and straightforwardly about where they are not.