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.