A Sense of Honor

Jim Webb graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1968, 31 years before I did. He served in Vietnam as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps, was wounded twice and received two Purple Hearts. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Silver Star and the Navy Cross, the second highest honor a Marine Corps Officer can receive behind only the Congressional Medal of Honor. He received that Navy Cross for leading an assault on three enemy bunkers that ultimately ended with him throwing himself in front of a grenade to save his men while continuing to return fire on the enemy. The citation reads like the script of a war movie. Because Jim Webb is a war hero. One of the most decorated to ever graduate from my school .

The novels he wrote told the story of his experiences like no one could. A Sense of Honor was near mandatory reading at Annapolis. And if you’re going to read one book on the Vietnam War, Fields of Fire might be it. His fictional accounts of nonfictional things were nothing short of brilliant. Critics of my writing have called what I’ve managed to put out a cheap copy of Webb’s style. I take any comparison, even derogatory, as a compliment.

Webb served as the Secretary of the Navy and the Assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Regan. He served one term as Senator from Virginia. He’s been a member of both the Democratic and Republican parties. And in 2016, he ran a brief and unsuccessful campaign for the presidency. He wrote and sponsored the post 9/11 GI bill that both my wife and I used to graduate from graduate school.

Today, Jim Webb was to be honored as a distinguished graduate of my alma mater. Two days ago, he declined the honor. Because there are people who don’t think that he deserves it.

In 1979, Webb wrote an article for the Washingtonian Magazine titled Women Can’t Fight. In it, he took to task the issue of women serving in combat by way of a focused criticism of the admission of women to the United States Naval Academy. Until a few classmates of mine reached out to me to see if I might support opposition for honoring him, I had no idea the article existed. But they did. Because they believe it had done great harm to them. So I read it.

It starts off classic Webb as he dispassionately paints the brutal picture of the reality of combat while contrasting his vulnerability through the impact it had on him and the men he served with and loved. It then transitions into a lesser version of his intellect where he cites the nature of the differences of men and women. And includes some anecdotal opinions of those enrolled at Annapolis and how they felt about it. And some more anecdote about how soft the school has gotten and what that means for its place in our society. And then he finishes with the typical approach of showing the negative impact it’s having on women. Because the argument isn’t about thinking less of women. It’s about caring for and protecting them. And understanding that this life wasn’t for them.

A woman is a certain type of thing. And combat is a certain type of thing. And they are two types of things not for each other.

The article has more than its fair share of troublingly anachronistic passages, even for forty years ago. I won’t cite them. You can read it yourself. And Webb’s motivation for writing it is something only he can tell you. Though I’d venture a guess that, based on the life he lived around the article, he wrote it because he cared about what was happening. And he believed what he said. He was the gritty war hero telling an increasingly sensitive and progressive society with a Democratic liberal government some hard, conservative truths. It’s a tone that should ring familiar to my generation of vets from Iraq and Afghanistan, none too pleased with more modern progressive leadership.

Admittedly, his decision not to accept the honor to avoid further controversy has relieved me of my conflicted burden to weigh in on what I think the Naval Academy Alumnae Association should do. As he has done in most parts of his life that matter to the public, Jim Webb acted selflessly with an eye towards the greater good. But that doesn’t mean there’s not something to weigh in on. Or no more questions to ask. Because there are.

How should we feel about Jim Webb’s contribution to America based on what he wrote as a 33-year old published author and veteran? Does he get a pass? Or is he no longer a person worthy of our appreciation at all? Or is it somewhere in between? And what if we refuse to allow ourselves the off-ramp that is the common notion that people are complicated and we therefore are allowed to dismiss their shortcomings by way of that particular disclaimer?  What does it all mean?

Well, the answer, for me, is oddly simple. We shouldn’t think anything about how we feel about Jim Webb. Because it doesn’t matter. And he’d likely be the first one to tell you that. What does matter is how we should act in instances where we’ve progressed to those societal inflection points where the fates of groups of people are to be decided by whether or not they should be included as equals in a society. The answer should always be assumed to be yes.

We wrote it down once. And we’ve fought hard to mean it ever since. If someone can do the job, and they want to do the job, and they do what is required of others to do the job, then they get to do the job. It’s not hard to accept. It’s only hard if you make it hard. And making it hard is a choice.

I’ve served in combat zones with all male units. And I’ve served in them with women too. Some women aren’t cut out for it. And neither are some men. But those that are, if they raise their hand, are every bit as worthy as I was.

Our history is full of the regrets of exclusion and absent from those of inclusion. I appreciate nearly everything Jim Webb has done on this planet as good and accretive to a life well lived in a society that’s better off for having him. And so I’d like to help him out and point to a time when someone used their power and influence to show that an entire race or sex or nation of origin could be effectively disqualified as capable, worthy or suited for participation in a portion of society, and that we were all better off for it. But I can’t. Because there aren’t any. Even if we keep trying to do it.

I shouldn’t expect that those hurt by what he wrote to be too forgiving. Nor should I expect that an institution that ignored what he said and has since graduated thousands of women who served honorably in peace and in war to honor him without explanation or consideration for those he hurt. That doesn’t mean I think any less of any of the good he did. That would be as disingenuous as ignoring perspectives of those he hurt.

History is a harsh judge of those who close the door on others. Even if they believed they were closing it for the good of those on both sides.

That’s the lesson here. That’s what matters.


26 thoughts on “A Sense of Honor

  1. – ooohhh so great of you guys…love it:) sorry we didn’t stop in this year:) yeah right eh!…lol..would’ve loved too but it was a bit too much on our way this year:9 anyway, you look awesome and so does your family…and new camera? well, sounds like all is su0#e&a823p;.wond!rful!!!January 4, 2009 – 9:14 pm


  2. A lot of whatever you state is sulrpisingpy legitimate and it makes me wonder the reason why I hadn’t looked at this with this light before. This particular piece truly did switch the light on for me personally as far as this specific subject matter goes. But there is actually one factor I am not really too comfy with and while I attempt to reconcile that with the actual core idea of the issue, allow me observe what the rest of the readers have to say.Well done.


  3. I agree that Webb would have found it unacceptable. His war was a different war than yours. His combat experience was vastly different for many reasons. Times change. Old dogs like me still view everything from the perspective of our time. Did you ever read the musings of H.G. Duncan? He wrote everything as a letter between friends, but he addressed many different issues. I can’t remember which book of his discussed the gender issue, but I always chuckled at his reply. He said, “Women Marines face every issue that male Marines face – plus.” Some things don’t change.


  4. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I think that your interpretation isn’t wrong. It’s just the least stringent of how what he wrote can be interpreted. I served in Iraq and had troops in Afghanistan that were integrated. And I think that what Webb wrote, as he wrote it would have found that unacceptable. And as a leader, I observed otherwise. How he chose to write it from a position of power was not his greatest moment. And I say that as someone who appreciates Jim Webb. This piece was an effort to come to terms with all of it.


  5. Sean, I read your article from a class of ’80 facebook page and then looked up Webb’s article online. I believe both articles state individual positions well, but I believe that Webb was right in many ways, both then and now. He was writing from the position of experienced combat veteran who survived a war in hell as an combat infantry officer. That was his reality, and he defended his position from that viewpoint. I believe that most of us remember intense training regimens as much worse than they really were. I also believe that the individual responses to those regimens make them who they are as individuals. I was an enlisted Marine who was given the opportunity to attend the Naval Academy as part of the class of ’80. What they called “tough” during my plebe summer, I remember more as a lark. I left the Academy in the middle of our youngster year and returned to the Marine Corps, where I retired in 1996, after 22 years. I remember the very thinly veiled taunts from the upper class about the women, even from some of those who wanted to date them. I believe that the women experienced a much tougher mental battle – and sometimes physical – than any of my male classmates ever did. Some of them went on to very successful careers in the military. Our nation is still engaged in a political battle of equality and attempting to make all combat roles and MOS’s open to both genders. That is where I agree more with James Webb. While women are not only competent, they are proven exceptional leaders in many ways. Combat Arms is not that way. The IDF forces that he spoke of are much more integrated today than when he wrote that article, yet they are a great proving ground for a separatist’s mentality. Women who enter into those roles, even when they are successful, pay a much higher price than their male counterparts. The question that James Webb danced around was not whether they could – it’s whether we should, as a society, ask women to give up their gender identity to fit into a role. What they would have to sacrifice would scar them emotionally, much more than their male peers. And the scars would last a lifetime. I have a friend who is a lawyer who said it much better than I ever could. He said, “I don’t understand the whole equality battle. Of course women aren’t equal to men. They’re much better than men will ever be.”


  6. Sean, I really appreciated the care and respect you gave to both sides while reaching your conclusion. It was thought-provoking and enlightening. I’m grateful you’re out here adding to the dialogue. Thank you for your service.


  7. Webb was told that “…it is clear that those protesting my receipt of this award now threaten to disrupt the ceremonies surrounding its issuance.” That sure seems like a plan to me. First, college campuses and now creeping into USNA. It remains to be seen if the plans to protest would have actually been carried out, but political activism intended to disrupt and coerce have no place at USNA, the Navy or the military, IMHO.


  8. Just to be clear, there was no plan to protest, women graduates that were contacted by the media emphasized they would not protest when asked by the media. It would have been unfair to the other recipients. A 1981 grad.


  9. The Telescope is named after a different James Webb – a former NASA administrator – not the USNA Jim Webb.

    Thank you for forging a path for young women at USNA. Those earlier classes had it tough, especially 1980-1984 IMHO. I am a 1988 grad. I saw a gradual transition of the general opinion of women at USNA while I was there (I attended from 84-88). Kind of an oddity in 1984 (only about 10-15% of class I think), to a little more part of the permanent landscape by the time I left (women had been at USNA for 12 years at that point).

    The women of my class and the years before deserved to be there. Most worked very hard, and I came to admire quite a few. Some didn’t, and got by the best they could. But I can say the same about the men that were there. There is no doubt in my mind that it was harder to be a women at USNA than a man, and I am sure the same is true today. But it was especially hard on those first few classes.

    So I say again, thank you. You should be (and I am sure are) very proud of what you did.


  10. Sean, I too have struggled with these events. Webb undoubtedly is qualified for the award. He has dedicated his life to public service at USNA, the Marines, the Dept of Navy, and Senate. He is a decorated war hero, and accomplished writer and award winning television producer. No one can question his qualifications.

    That leaves his opinions. Particularly, that one article from 38 years ago. When he wrote that article, he was only a few years out of infantry combat in Vietnam. The Navy, USNA, and the world at large were undergoing radical changes. In fact, the entire country was experiencing a crisis of confidence according to another USNA grad (http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jimmycartercrisisofconfidence.htm). Lost in the discussion is that, as Secretary of the Navy, he opened up more combat billets to women than any previous SECNAV.( http://www.nytimes.com/1987/12/22/us/navy-expands-the-roles-of-women.html

    Opinions change. Character does not.

    I don’t know if I would have selected him. But I did not serve on the selection committee. The people that did were well qualified for that assignment. Like most things in the military, whether I agree with the decision or not, I will honor it. It was not my decision to make.

    What bothers me most about this is the way the “protest” developed. I understand and support the rights of fellow members of the NAAA to question the decision, write letters, and contact theor reps about it. What I don’t agree with are threats to “disrupt” the ceremony if the NAAA tries to give the award to Webb. First, its juvenile – like a 4 year old holding his (or her) breath if he doesn’t get his way. Second, such physical confrontation such as disrupting a ceremony only one step below violence and can easily lead into it. This is not an open policy debate. This is you do what I want or I will do this to you. An open and honest discussion on the merits of an issue cannot happen in such an environment. Finally, its disrespectful. Disrupting a ceremony, especially a military ceremony, dishonors the entire process and the people and organization who made the decision in the first place. Webb’s withdrawal, in part due to the threat of a disruption, really troubles me. Disruption has not place in the military unless it is aimed at the enemy. And no matter what you think about Jim Webb and the NAAA, they are not the enemy.


  11. I am an ’87 grad of USNA. I, like Rose, have matured, and put the past behind me. But, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the consequences that James Webb’s article “Women Can’t Fight” had on the atmosphere at USNA. I was an All-American athlete while attending, and am a member of the USNA athletic Hall of Fame. His words, no matter how capable any of the women were, did harm, by encouraging discrimination by not only the upperclass, but by our peers as well. To say we, as a gender, are incapable, is entirely different from saying the armed forces as a whole, aren’t ready to adapt.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Hi Rose, loved your comment, but I just wanted to correct something you said. The James Webb telescope is named after a different James Webb. He is a deceased former NASA administrator.


  13. I am a female graduate of USNA Class of ’82, and have been vexed by the nomination and the subsequent actions. My experience left me with painful memories associated with the name James Webb (the telescope named for him still causes me to hesitate as I discuss it, in spite of all the positive reasons it bears this name). Over the years, I hope that I have gained some measure of wisdom, and now I am a teacher with some measure of responsibility for a new generation. I want to put events of more than 30 years ago firmly in the past and look forward, encouraging all of my students to go as far as their talents, desires and abilities take them. I am generally very optimistic about the future, especially for the young women I teach. It is only when I see those doors being closed (again) that my pain returns and anger rises. Thank you, Sean, for cutting to the heart of the matter.


  14. Sean, as usual a thought-provoking piece – you toss it in the air, catalog both sides fairly and leave it to your readers to land where they may. My bottom line is as simple as yours, but different: Webb’s lifetime achievements speak for themselves, unquestionably warranting the Distinguished Graduate Award. The issues he raised in that one piece are legitimate even now (unit cohesion, unit effectiveness, regarding which you know much more than I), no matter how impolitic they may seem today.

    FYI I am also a USNA graduate (’65) – the Webb issue has aroused huge interest in our class, and I took the liberty of forwarding your piece to our class Yahoo forum. I am also a columnist, write a bi-weekly OpEd for our local daily, host a little e-mail blog and recently started posting on jcdevinejr.tumblr.com. Check it out if you get a minute. I follow your posts regularly and I greatly admire your writing and your thinking – thanks for doing it, keep it up.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thank you for this tribute to a great man, but thank you more for reminding us all that we’re complicated: we grow, we learn, we make mistakes….as you write, history—and the media—are not kind to those who close doors on others.
    This nation needs the Jim Webbs so desperately now.


  16. Sean. You’re doing an awesome job. It is a hard subject – complicated just like the people involved. Your article handles it thoughtfully. Proud of you!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. PS. I just finished Moral Politics by George Lakoff. Have you had a chance to read it? I would be curious of your take from a conservative POV. As a liberal, it helped me make sense of why Republicans vote against their interests due to their moral positions. This essay made me think of it, because of the conservative moral order Lakoff presents is that men intrinsically have superiority over women and the resources of the planet. That and Strangers in their Own Land, in which a Berkeley sociologist spends 5 years immersing herself in red state country. Sorry my comments are not directly related to above post per se, just wanted to throw it out there because I found those books very informative.

    OBV your conservatism does not seem to embrace Lakoff’s moral order, it is actually more of the progressive moral order of equality for all and a more level playing field. So I guess I see this essay as more liberal than conservative. Not that it matters, or changes your position.


  18. I think the author is incorrect. We should think about what James Webb said, but take that as just one of his many expressions and acts over a distinguished career in politics and the military. It is pretty insane that we are willing to adopt these litmus tests where someone is supposedly completely discredited because they said something that goes against a certain set of facts and/or ideology. He express his pretty informed opinion, just like lots of other people express their informed and, in too may cases, not too well-informed opinion on this and other topics. We really do not have enough data, IMHO, to know how to integrate women into combat units in a significant way that will increase combat effectiveness. In other words, the jury really is very much still out on the extent to which women can contribute to large-scale combat operations, such as those conducted in Vietnam, Desert Storm, etc.


  19. Hi Sean!

    Have not read your entire article, just wanted to let you know that although Webb says he declined the DGA, it was actually rescinded….

    I was SO excited…. I remember sitting through his Forrestal lecture. Watching it yesterday – amazing how times have changed

    Sent from my iPhone



  20. My grandfather taught me values of southern chivalry that I think Mr. Webb would understand. But my own personality and experience makes me doubt at least some of those principles, both in theory and in practice. In the end, you summed it up quite concisely in your paragraph about equality. Well written. Thought provoking. I echo RJ Kaufman’s reply above.


  21. Sean, I keep being blown away by the thoughtfulness and fairness of your positions. And honesty. I really hope your blog blows up and you get that book deal. You deserve it, both for your thinking and the quality of your essays. I am a far left progressive yet I find myself agreeing with you so often due to your pursuit of truth. And again….your commitment to fairness which this essay demonstrates.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Mr. Hughes, I’m not sure when or how I came across your blog for the first time. But as a professional in the communications and public relations world, I find your blog to be informative, educational, inspirational and thought-provoking. Thank you for your service (and your wife’s service), and thank you for what you do today to enlighten us all. At 55 years of age, I’ve seen a lot, experienced more highs than lows, survived a few scrapes and admired a father who gave the ultimate sacrifice to his country at a time when I was old enough to talk to him about it before he succumbed. You, sir, are an inspiration. You have a gift. Keep sharing it, and Keep the Faith.

    Liked by 2 people

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