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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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.