What the Jim Webb Debacle in Annapolis Is Teaching the Military

Jim Webb

Jim Webb / Getty Images

Imagine you are a young midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy processing the news that Jim Webb—Annapolis class of '68, recipient of the Navy Cross, former senator and secretary of the Navy, former member of the Annapolis faculty, bestselling novelist and acclaimed journalist—has been forced by political pressure to decline an award for distinguished alumni at your school this week.

The most widely cited reason for his political toxicity is an article he wrote in 1979 (side note: almost forty years ago!) in Washingtonian Magazine entitled "Women Can't Fight." Never mind that he has apologized for both the vivid language of his youth and the ways in which the article made life difficult for women already in the service. ("Clearly, if I had been a more mature individual, there are things that I would not have said in that magazine article. To the extent that this article subjected women at the Academy or the armed forces to undue hardship, I remain profoundly sorry.") Never mind the fact that Webb was channeling the beliefs of the vast majority of his fellow infantrymen, if in somewhat impolitic language—or that even today, the vast majority of Marines of all grades oppose the inclusion of women in combat units. Never mind that in 1987, as secretary of the Navy, Webb opened a tremendous number of new positions in the service to women. Most of all, never mind that as of December 2015, combat units were all opened to women by order of then-Secretary of Defense Carter, overriding the objections of the Marine Corps (though not of the Army).

In other words, the proponents of including women in combat units have won. But, as the case of Webb shows, that's not enough. You have to salt the fields.

Returning to our midshipman, here is what the Naval Academy has taught you this week:

  • Do not take a bold stand, especially in public. It does not matter if your argument is made honestly and in good faith, or if you are an expert on the matter of policy under discussion.
  • Keep a keen sense of which way the political wind is blowing. Don't fight it—drift with it.
  • No matter the number of your accomplishments or their objective prestige, you will be humiliated for once having promoted a Wrong Opinion.
  • The more effectively and memorably you promoted the Wrong Opinion, the greater your punishment will be.

From the perspective of the left, of course, Webb's punishment is richly deserved, in part because of claims that his words contributed to an unsafe environment for females in the military at the time. The tactics used to force him to withdraw this week also have the familiar flavor of left-wing activism to them. In a statement last night, Webb noted that "those protesting my receipt of this award now threaten to disrupt the ceremonies surrounding its issuance." At the U.S. Naval Academy, just as at Middlebury College, a heckler's veto is apparently possible—though it is hard to imagine midshipmen themselves doing the protesting.

Just as interesting is how Webb describes the manner in which pressure was applied. He was told "that my presence at the ceremony would likely mar the otherwise celebratory nature of that special day" in "conversations with the Alumni Association, including information passed down from top Navy leadership in the Pentagon…"

A nation gets the military leadership it deserves. America's future military leaders are learning some important lessons this week—just not the ones we should want.