Anger aweigh for Navy readers Journal: Story blasting critic of women in combat brings boatload of negative responses to Navy publication.

September 12, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Rarely has the journal of the venerable U.S. Naval Institute, which has served as the forum for Navy and Marine officers since the age of sail, spurred readers to denounce one of its articles as sensational, dangerous and insulting.

But anything can happen when the issue is women in combat.

So a late summer squall of letters has blown into the Annapolis offices of Proceedings, with about 100 writers weighing in so far on a controversial piece by U.S. Naval Academy ethics professor Paul E. Roush.

In the August issue, Roush launched a blistering assault on the writings of former Navy Secretary James H. Webb Jr., who has likened placing women in combat roles to a poorly thought-out social experiment.

Roush's article said Webb's views on women in combat amount to an attack not only on women, the Naval Academy and the Navy, but also on civilian control of the military.

In reply has come the rush of letters, running nearly 8-to-1 in support of Webb, a highly decorated Marine combat veteran in Vietnam and best-selling novelist who served as Navy secretary under Ronald Reagan.

It was the most mail generated since the late 1970s, said Proceedings editor Fred Rainbow, when Elmo Zumwalt, a retired chief of naval operations, used the magazine's pages to argue that the Navy's biggest problem was Hyman Rickover, a legendary and irascible figure who ushered in the nuclear Navy.

"We published letters for more than a year," recalled Rainbow. The institute, a private research organization founded in 1873 and based at the Naval Academy, sends the magazine to its 85,000 members.

Grounded argument

Roush, in his article, wrote: "There is a particular aspect of the politics of resentment on which Webb's writings seem fixated, namely resentment against those who ascribe leadership abilities to women."

Webb only focuses on ground combat, noted Roush, a 1957 academy graduate and retired Marine colonel who served as an artillery officer in Vietnam, and fails to note the contributions women have made serving aboard combat ships and aircraft.

A 1968 academy graduate who retired from active duty in 1972 as a result of Vietnam war wounds, Webb has emerged during the past two decades as a constant thorn to leaders of the modern U.S. military.

In his writings and speeches, he laments the transition from rigorous and often politically incorrect military training to less arduous, more low-key instruction. In his novels, notably his Annapolis-based 1981 book "A Sense of Honor," hazing and physical hardship are portrayed as crucial to molding young combat leaders.

In a 1979 Washingtonian magazine article titled "Women Can't Fight," Webb wrote that women are unable to withstand the rigors of combat and their presence at the service academies was "poisoning" men's preparation for combat command.

And just last year in the Weekly Standard, a conservative Washington journal, Webb wrote: "Political and military leaders must have the courage to ask clearly in what areas women in the military are hurting, rather than helping, the task of defending the United States."

Still, he has said there is a place for women in the military, and won praise as Navy secretary in 1987 when he tripled, to 15,000, the number of seagoing combat-support jobs open to women.

So far, Proceedings has printed just seven letters about the Roush article. Four of them say he's made a personal attack on Webb, rather than engaging in an exchange of ideas. At the same time, three of the letters reflect persistent divisions over a question the Navy -- and the military as a whole -- would like to put to rest: Should women be allowed in combat roles?

Constructive criticism

Webb's writings are not assaults on women but "intelligent calls" to re-examine "the purpose of the Naval Academy and the presence of women in combat units," wrote Marine 2nd Lt. Chad Van Someren, a 1997 academy graduate, who dismissed Roush's piece as "sensationalist and dangerous."

"To argue that women should not be put into combat situations is not to 'mock or ridicule them,' " wrote Van Someren. "The fact that women have had 'decades of experience' on ships does not mean that they have had experience in combat situations."

But Valerie M. Hudson, a professor at Brigham Young University and an Army veteran, praised Roush's article and said she deplores how Webb uses "his influence to spread these noxious ideas within the military."

"Women who want to serve as warriors should do so," she wrote. "That appears to be the only way that men who hold women in contempt and view themselves as superior can ever experience a woman as their equal."

Another letter writer, retired Army Col. Harry G. Summers Jr., a highly regarded military writer and analyst, said that he disagrees "in almost every particular" with Webb's views but found Roush's article "particularly insulting."

It was more akin to faculty sniping, he wrote, than the free exchange of ideas "that was the ideal upon which Proceedings was founded."

Roush disagrees.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.