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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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.