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Jim Webb: Women Can’t Fight
"Your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable—it is to win wars," Douglas MacArthur told the 1962 West Point class. In this story, a Naval Academy graduate, a combat veteran of Vietnam, says the country's fighting mission is being corrupted, with grave consequences to the national defense. One of the main problems, he says, is women. By James Webb
Comments () | Published November 1, 1979

 From the November 1979 Washingtonian

We would go months without bathing, except when we could stand naked among each other next to a village well or in a stream or in the muddy water of a bomb crater. It was nothing to begin walking at midnight, laden with packs and weapons and ammunition and supplies, seventy pounds or more of gear, and still be walking when the sun broke over mud-slick paddies that had sucked our boots all night. We carried our own gear and when we took casualties we carried the weapons of those who had been hit.

When we stopped moving we started digging, furiously throwing out the heavy soil until we had made chest-deep fighting holes. When we needed to make a call of nature we squatted off a trail or straddled a slit trench that had been dug between fighting holes, always by necessity in public view. We slept in makeshift hooches made out of ponchos, or simply wrapped up in a poncho, sometimes so exhausted that we did not feel the rain fall on our own faces. Most of us caught hookworm, dysentery, malaria, or yaws, and some of us had all of them.

We became vicious and aggressive and debased, and reveled in it, because combat is all of those things and we were surviving. I once woke up in the middle of the night to the sounds of one of my machinegunners stabbing an already-dead enemy soldier, emptying his fear and frustrations into the corpse's chest. I watched another of my men, a wholesome Midwest boy, yank the trousers off a dead woman while under fire, just to see if he really remembered what it looked like.

We killed and bled and suffered and died in a way that Washington society, which seems to view service in the combat arms as something akin to a commute to the Pentagon, will never comprehend. And our mission, once all the rhetoric was stripped away, was organized mayhem, with emphasis on both words. For it is organization and leadership, as well as the interdependence sometimes called camaraderie, that sustain a person through such a scarring experience as fighting a war.

This is the only country in the world where women are being pushed toward the battlefield. The United States also has one of the most alarming rates of male-to-female violence in the world: Rapes increased 230 percent from 1967 to 1977 and the much-publicized wife-beating problem cuts across socioeconomic lines.

These are not separate issues, either politically or philosophically. They are visible peaks in what has become a vast bog. They are telling us something about the price we are paying, in folly on the one hand and in tragedy on the other, for the realignment of sexual roles.

Lest I be understood too quickly, I should say that I believe most of what has happened over the past decade in the name of sexual equality has been good. It is good to see women doctors and lawyers and executives. I can visualize a woman President. If I were British, I would have supported Margaret Thatcher. But no benefit to anyone can come from women serving in combat.

The function of combat is not merely to perpetrate violence, but to perpetrate violence on command, instantaneously and reflexively.The function of the service academies is to prepare men for leadership positions where they may someday exercise that command. All of the other accomplishments that Naval Academy or West Point or Air Force Academy graduates may claim in government or business or diplomacy are incidental to that clearly defined combat mission.

American taxpayers dip into their pockets to pay $100,000 for every Naval Academy graduate. They are buying combat leaders, men with a sense of country who have developed such intangibles as force, clarity of thought, presence, and the ability to lead by example, who have lived under stress for years and are capable of functioning under intense pressure. When war comes and the troops move out, our citizens can assume that the academies have provided a nucleus of combat leaders who can carry this country on their backs.

Other officer programs are capable of producing combat leaders, but the academies have traditionally guaranteed it, made it their reason for existence. Forty percent of West Point's class of 1943 died in World War II and ten percent of the class of 1966 died in Vietnam. The POW camps of North Vietnam were packed with Air Force and Naval Academy graduates. The six midshipmen in my Naval Academy class of 1968 who served as liaisons between the Marine Corps and the Brigade of Midshipmen later suffered nine Purple Hearts in Vietnam, and one man killed in action. As Douglas MacArthur said in his "Long Gray Line" speech to the West Point graduating class of 1962, "Your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable— it is to win our wars. Everything else in your professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication. All other public purposes . . . will find others for their accomplishment; but you are the ones who are trained to fight; yours is the profession of arms."
So it had been at the military academies since they were established — West Point in 1802, the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1845, the Air Force Academy in 1954— and so it would have continued to be had not Public Law 94-106, passed in 1975. decreed that women be brought into this quintessentially male world.

There is a place for women in our military, but not in combat. And their presence at institutions dedicated to the preparation of men for combat command is poisoning that preparation. By attempting to sexually sterilize the Naval Academy environment in the name of equality, this country has sterilized the whole process of combat leadership training, and our military forces are doomed to suffer the consequences.

Civilian political control over the military is a good principle, but too many people, especially those involved in the political process, have lost their understanding of what that principle means. The classic example of a military force beyond control of its country's political system occurred during World War II in the Japanese Imperial Army, which took over Manchuria on its own initiative and informed the Japanese government after it had done so. The Japanese military machine was exercising its own judgment, not that of its nation. In attempting to avoid this extreme, the United States is dangerously near falling into the World War II German pratfall: a military system so paralyzed in every detail by the politcal process that it ceases to be able to control even its internal policies.

Civilian arrogance permeates our government, and during my two years on Capitol Hill was particularly strong on the staffs of the "consistent dissenters" of the Armed Services Committee. It was bad enough when the Vietnam war was being fought from Washington, DC. It was worse when McNamara and his whiz kids began social experimentation by instituting "Project 100,000," whereupon 100,000 borderline intellects were dumped into the military, and the military was then faulted for having failed to make them good soldiers (Harvard and Yale at that time having decided to sit out the war, and Johnson choosing to go after the mental rejects rather than the deferred leaders of tomorrow). But it has become absolutely intolerable during the 1970s. The military has a politician's toy, a way to accommodate interest groups without losing political support in the home district. a test tube for social experimentation.

Nowhere is this more of a problem than in the area of women's political issues. Equal-opportunity specialists, women's rights advocates, and certain members of Congress have prided themselves on the areas of the military they have "opened up" to women. The Carter administration has come out in favor of "allowing" women to go into combat. These advocates march under the banner of equal opportunity.

Equal opportunity for what? They should first understand that they would not be "opening up" the combat arms for those few women who might now want to serve in them, but rather would be forcing American womanhood into those areas, en masse, should a future mobilization occur.

The United States is the only country of any size on earth where the prospect of women serving in combat is being seriously considered. Even Israel, which continually operates under near-total mobilization requirements, does not subject its women to combat or combat-related duty. Although some 55 percent of Israeli women— as opposed to 95 percent of the men— serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, the women have administrative and technical jobs that require little or no training.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 11/01/1979 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles