Defense

Jim Webb should be honored for his service even if some are offended

Webb
Webb

Former Democratic Virginia Sen. Jim Webb has declined the honor of being recognized as a distinguished graduate of the Naval Academy. While I am not a Naval Academy graduate, or a parent of a midshipman, I still have a dog in this fight as a former Marine infantryman and father of a Marine infantry officer. Webb distinguished himself in combat as a Marine infantry officer. 

If any part of the Naval Academy’s mission is to produce warriors, then Webb’s Navy Cross citation is sufficient evidence to warrant his status as a distinguished graduate of that institution.

{mosads}Despite his distinguished combat record and his service as secretary of the Navy and as a United States Senator, a number of Academy graduates objected to his recognition as a distinguished graduate because of a 1979 article Webb wrote for Washingtonian magazine entitled, “Women Can’t Fight.”

 

In the article, Webb argued that women did not belong at the Naval Academy because they were ill-suited to combat, a traditionally male endeavor. Webb has since changed his position based on new evidence and apologized for any undue hardship caused to women at the Academy or in the armed forces that may have arisen from his article.

Yet his change of position and apology are not enough for some who protested his recognition as a distinguished graduate.

One of those who commented on the opposition to Webb, retired Navy Captain Wendy Lawrence, likened his article to an “assault.” Captain Lawrence is a spectacularly accomplished Academy graduate and is herself worthy of recognition as a distinguished graduate. 

But it is ironic that a graduate of an institution that is supposed to be training warriors and leaders feels assaulted by words in a magazine. It is especially ironic when that offended graduate piloted helicopters and braved the void of space in her service to the nation. 

Further, the notion that the article was an “assault” is demeaning to women, including those in the armed forces and at the Academy, who have actually been assaulted. And it is demeaning to the thousands of women who have been assaulted by the bullets and mortars of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past fifteen years.

I suspect that Captain Lawrence’s choice of words was just poor. I suspect that she fully understands the difference between an assault and being offended by an article, even one with which she strenuously disagreed. Being offended and being assaulted are two vastly different things.

Nearly forty years after Webb’s article, the issue of women at the service academies has been settled. Female service academy graduates have distinguished themselves in service to their nation in the military and in civilian life.

But even now, the issue of women in combat roles is still being debated. The Marine Corps recently deployed the first female enlisted infantry Marines, though no female yet has successfully completed the Corps’ Infantry Officer’s Course which often has attrition rates near fifty percent.

Whether women in the infantry turns out to be a wise decision with regard to combat efficacy will be determined in the crucible of some future conflict. The opinions about the issue will ultimately be settled by the facts.

Webb, an infantry officer who fought and distinguished himself in combat leading Marines in Vietnam, was contributing to the debate over an issue of public concern when he wrote his 1979 article. He based his opinion on his experiences as a Marine officer.

Webb’s detractors have the right to disagree with his opinion. They have the right to argue against his opinion. And yes, they have the right to be offended by his opinion.

But Webb also had a right to voice his opinion and he certainly has the right to reflect on it and the right to consider the evidence and change it. To ignore Webb’s rights in this regard is intellectually dishonest.

For some, the right to express an unpopular or politically incorrect opinion appears to be a notion whose time has passed. If anyone is offended by a remark or opinion, ad hominem public attacks, public shunning and scorn is the response, instead of a well-argued rebuttal. Unfortunately this has become the norm in our public discourse.

Rather than taking this opportunity to address Webb’s 1979 opinion, by presenting a different position based on the history of women in military service over the last forty years, those who agitated against Webb’s recognition as an Academy distinguished graduate instead launched a punitive raid.

Proving Webb’s 1979 opinion wrong would have been a much more effective rebuttal. Instead, the offended chose to take the easy road and sought to deny this warrior his due.

Combat is no place for hurt feelings. The Naval Academy is supposed to prepare men and women for leadership in combat. Let’s hope it is doing a better job of that than it has done preparing some of its graduates to withstand the slings and arrows of public debate. 

David Warrington, a Marine veteran, is a partner at the national law firm of LeClairRyan and chairs the firm’s political law practice.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags David Warrington Jim Webb

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