Academy's past is present in Va. Senate campaign

The Baltimore Sun

It's been almost 30 years since James Webb published a provocative essay opposing the integration of women at the Naval Academy titled "Women Can't Fight."

But the words have come back - again - to haunt the former Navy Secretary who is now embroiled in Virginia's close and increasingly caustic Senate race.

The essay, a 7,000-word broadside published in the Washingtonian just six months before the first class to include women in the school's history would graduate in 1980, stridently argued that women were "poisoning" the process of preparing men to be combat leaders at the service academies.

Webb, running as a Democrat, has apologized repeatedly and sought to distance himself from the piece, which he wrote during his brief tenure as a "writer-in-residence" at the academy. It was brought up after President Reagan named him secretary of the Navy. During a visit to the campus in 1987 to be sworn in, female midshipmen festooned the trees with undergarments in protest.

The essay has now become the centerpiece in a series of attack ads by his opponent, the incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen, which were unveiled Thursday. The ads feature prominent female academy graduates decrying the essay and its impact.

Several women who graduated in the early 1980s said the piece galvanized the men at the school and emboldened them to express the view that women just didn't belong.

"He's a legend at the Naval Academy, and that's why what he wrote and the things he said had such an impact on women at the academy and persisted for so many years," said Kathleen Murray, a retired Navy commander who is featured in Allen's ad, in a telephone interview. "And you cannot tell me that he did not know what he was saying and what would be the effects and ramifications of that article. ... He saw firsthand what things were."

The result, the women say, was a worsening of the hazing they were forced to endure. One young woman, a plebe going through the arduous first-year indoctrination process at the academy, told Murray that she was forced by upperclassmen to memorize certain passages of "Women Can't Fight" and recite them at noon meal, at the top of her lungs.

The debate about women at the academy has mostly been settled among students at the school, and with most of the general public. Among some alumni, however, it still rages.

"Jim Webb is one of the modern-day icons for Naval Academy alumni, for a whole bunch of reasons," said John Howland, a 1962 graduate who distributes news and manages a blog for a network of more than 500 alumni. Howland cited a litany of prominent items in Webb's past: Vietnam war hero, best-selling novelist, Navy secretary. But in some quarters, nothing has given Webb as much respect as "Women Can't Fight," Howland said.

"That article hit a chord and was definitely one of the reasons why Jim Webb has been a revered Naval Academy figure," he said. "His position in the pantheon of Naval Academy alumni still rests on the momentum of that article."

The essay begins with a gritty, visceral description of Webb's combat experiences in Vietnam, and then lays out a nuanced position about women in combat, citing the policies of the Israeli military, which did not allow women to serve in combat roles (although its policies now are similar to those of the U.S. military).

"We became vicious and aggressive and debased, and reveled in it, because combat is all of those things and we were surviving," Webb wrote. "I once woke up in the middle of the night to the sounds of one of my machine gunners stabbing an already-dead enemy soldier, emptying his fear and frustrations into the corpse's chest."

Webb goes on to say that women don't belong in those sorts of situations, and that the purpose of the Naval Academy was to prepare men for exactly that kind of crucible. He said the viciousness and occasional brutality of upperclassmen during his plebe year made him ready for Vietnam.

"When I watched 51 of my men become casualties over seven weeks in Vietnam, and when I sat down next to number 51 and cried like a baby, I'd been there before," he wrote. "It was a lot easier to pick up and keep going, and by then I was not merely Jim Webb, plebe, trying to survive a morning of a malicious upperclassman; I was a Marine platoon commander."

The article "ignited a firestorm," according to The Nightingale's Song, a book by Robert Timberg, an academy graduate and former reporter and editor for The Sun. "Women were angry, liberals gasped, Navy and Academy officialdom excoriated Webb."

While he never completely repudiated the essay, Webb later said he regretted some parts of it, namely calling Bancroft Hall, the academy dormitory, "a horny woman's dream" because of how much men outnumbered women there. He has also said he didn't pen the title, and his campaign has also noted that, as Navy secretary, he opened more positions to women in the fleet than anyone before him.

His spokeswoman said Webb, 60, was unavailable for an interview for this article.

After several female academy graduates spoke out against him at a news conference in September, Webb apologized for the essay.

"I did not anticipate the widespread reaction to this magazine article, and to the extent that my writing subjected women at the academy or the active armed forces to undue hardship, I am profoundly sorry," he said in the statement.

Linda Ponstenriender, a 1982 Naval Academy graduate who spoke out about the essay at a Sept. 13 news conference organized by the Allen campaign, believes Webb's apology was sufficient, and she endorsed his candidacy last week, although she is not a Virginia resident.

"I would like to thank Jim Webb for recognizing that an apology was needed and for issuing one," she said in a written statement. "It is clear to me that I would cast a vote for Jim Webb in the Virginia Senate race."

Webb said on NBC's "Meet The Press" recently that he is comfortable with the role of women in combat.

But others, including Murray, aren't satisfied.

"He wrote the article 27 years ago," Murray said. "The time for him to formally apologize was when he was secretary of the Navy. Now we're five weeks from Election Day and he's trying to retract what he's said. It sounds like political expediency to me."

To this day, Webb is a polarizing figure at the academy, not least for the essay. He returned from Vietnam as one of the academy's most-decorated warriors, having been awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. His wounds there eventually ended his military career, but he went on to become a lawyer and then novelist. His first novel, Fields of Fire, is among the most widely acclaimed works of Vietnam war fiction.

After writing "Women Can't Fight" during his short stay at the academy, Webb began a second novel, set largely in the academy's sprawling dormitory, Bancroft Hall. A Sense of Honor, published in 1981, is still popular among midshipmen, although senior officers occasionally urge Mids not to read it because of its presentation of the Naval Academy.

Webb left the Republican Party and entered the race because of his opposition to the Iraq war. But the race against Allen has focused much more on the past than the present, mirroring the 2004 Bush-Kerry contest.

Allen - who was considered a possible contender for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination - began the race with double-digit leads in polls, but that early advantage vanished when he used the word "macaca" to refer to an American campaign worker for Webb of East Asian descent. Macaca is a genus of monkey, and is considered a racial slur in some countries.

The Virginia senator was also criticized for how he handled a question about his Jewish heritage, which he only recently found out about. And last week, both candidates were accused of using a racial epithet to describe blacks more than 30 years ago, an accusation both denied.

Finally on Thursday, Allen's campaign launched the ads, accompanied by a Web site - www.webbagainstwomen.com - that delves more deeply into Webb's writings and past statements.

David Quint, a 1987 graduate, said many graduates feel that the essay is old news.

"Where many Naval Academy graduates are embarrassed is by Allen dredging up an article over two decades old to use against Webb, when there's other more pertinent things, like Webb's stance on the global war on terrorism."

Webb spoke out against the Iraq war well before the 2003 invasion.

Minor Carter, a 1952 graduate who considers himself a close friend of Webb's, recently organized a fundraiser in Annapolis. Although only about 30 people attended, they raised more than $25,000, he said.

"Webb is a controversial figure," Carter said, noting that he has a reputation among alums for being standoffish and severely blunt at times. "Some people don't look beneath the veneer of what he's written. Any position he takes is always issue-oriented and backed up by considerable thought. "

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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An article in Tuesday's Maryland section incorrectly reported the graduation year of two Naval Academy graduates. Minor Carter graduated in 1962, and John Howland graduated in 1964.The Sun regrets the errors.
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