Webb's views opposing women in combat called 'propaganda' Professor accuses writer of fostering resentment

April 06, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

A Naval Academy professor tore into the writings and speeches of former Navy Secretary James H. Webb Jr. yesterday, saying Webb's views against women in combat roles perpetuate "the politics of resentment" and breed cynicism among midshipmen and the military at large.

"Just as with the racists who opposed racial integration, Webb disseminates propaganda," said Paul Roush, a retired Marine colonel and 1957 academy graduate who teaches ethics at Annapolis.

Webb is pushing a view that "feminists" are pursing social and political goals that are "diminishing the capability of the armed forces to fight and survive," Roush said.

The professor, delivering the paper "A Tangled Webb the Navy Can't Afford" at a three-day conference on military culture at the University of Maryland College Park, said his comments are his own and not those of the academy.

Webb's views must be addressed because of his influence as a highly decorated Marine combat veteran, novelist and former service secretary, he said. Midshipmen still refer to his ideas and are shaped by them, Roush told a mostly female audience of two dozen, consisting largely of academics and including some retired and active-duty officers.

In a phone interview, Webb said he had not seen the speech and declined to respond to specific points made by Roush, noting that the professor has sharply criticized him before.

"I respect his right to advance his opinions," said Webb, "and I hope that the leadership at the Naval Academy allows those whose views differ from Professor Roush's to articulate their own views without fear of career derailment."

Roush's remarks centered mostly on Webb's 1979 article "Women Can't Fight" in Washingtonian magazine and his 1981 novel "A Sense of Honor," as well as recent speeches and writings.

In the magazine, Webb wrote of his opposition to women at the service academies, where they arrived in 1976. "There is a place for women in our military, but not in combat," he wrote, arguing that women could not withstand the rigors of ground combat. Women's presence at the academies is "poisoning" men's preparation for combat command, he said.

A 1968 academy graduate, Webb also wrote that the brutal hazing midshipmen suffered -- Webb was repeatedly struck with a cricket bat until it broke -- helped prepare them to be combat officers and withstand the rigors of capture by an enemy. He lamented the passing of the academy's "stress environment" to an atmosphere of "refinement."

Such views are woven into "A Sense of Honor," which tells of a midshipman's harsh efforts to build up a freshman, at one point forcing him to sleep on bare mattress springs.

Referring to the Washingtonian article, Roush brushed aside Webb's view that women are in the military as a "social experiment" and his focus on ground combat -- which was never an issue for women at the academy.

Instead, Roush said, it was the fact that women were legally barred only from combat aircraft and ships, restrictions that have since largely been lifted.

"We have plenty of data to show that women can fly planes and serve on ships in a superb fashion," Roush said. "The case against women, of course, is much harder in those two realms."

Roush said Webb's article "has been the single greatest purveyor of degradation and humiliation" for women at the academy. The stress women suffered is greater than "an infinite number of beatings with a cricket bat," he said.

As a result, those women are "more prepared to be a warrior than all of their male counterparts," Roush said, to nods and chuckles.

Webb should apologize to all female graduates and current female midshipmen, said Roush, as well as to the men "for leading them down a path that culminates in resentment and even hatred."

Roush said he did not experience hazing while at the academy. Neither did Adms. William Lawrence and James Stockdale, both of whom survived years as prisoners of war in Vietnam.

"Those who offer the most powerful examples of superlative behavior as prisoners of war," Roush said, "were not exposed as midshipmen to the vicious treatment with which Webb apparently continues to be enamored."

Roush also criticized Webb's speech last year at the Naval Academy that touched on Tailhook, the 1991 conference where women were groped by drunken aviators. Webb came to the defense of the Navy's hard-charging aviator culture.

Roush charged that Webb tried to "trivialize" Tailhook and avoided the larger context of its "professional deficiencies" -- from respect for people to military discipline.

"Thank you for voicing the other side. I think [Webb] is really a very dangerous voice," said Mady Wechsler Segal, a University of Maryland sociology professor specializing in military issues.

She recently was named as a consultant to an Army panel set up in the wake of the Aberdeen Proving Ground scandal to review sexual harassment problems. Segal said that if she had made comments such as Roush's about Webb, she would be viewed as a "flaming radical outsider."

Although one participant noted that as Navy secretary Webb had opened up more jobs for women aboard ships, Navy Capt. Rosemary Mariner, pointing out that she was expressing her personal views, criticized the "invidious bigotry" of "Women Can't Fight."

Roush said midshipmen are hearing counter-arguments to Webb's views and the academy is working to create a "professional military ethic," which is a "very different culture than that advocated by Webb."

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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