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The crude videos the Navy needed

The Washington Post (PDF)

By Bruce Fleming

January 9, 2011

The military's mission is to exert force and possibly kill people. It cannot work within the rules of civilian office culture.

The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise spent six months deployed in 2006, loading ordnance and flying sorties for two bloody wars. During that period and in 2007, the ship's second-in-command made and showed to his troops a series of goof videos about the challenges of carrying out the mission in a confined, deprived, inescapable space. Capt. Owen Honors made jokes about masturbation, sex in the showers and over-reliance on the f-bomb. He used coarse words for gay people. The videos came to light last weekend, and on Tuesday, amid escalating news coverage and outcry, the Navy removed Honors from his command.

Military responsiveness to civilian outrage is a good thing, since the military works for the civilian world rather than the reverse: It is the hammer to the civilian hand. And if someone wearing the uniform embarrasses the military, he or she takes the hit, regardless of the merits of the case - and again, this is a good thing. The individual has become distracting to the mission of the military. Members of the Navy learn the scale of importance from greatest to least: ship, shipmate, self. Here the individual has been sacrificed to the mission. And that's a good thing, too.

However, the videos, at least as I (and almost everyone else) viewed them in the fragmentary, edited form made available by the Virginian-Pilot, which broke the story, suggest not a bad leader but a good one, doing not the wrong thing but in fact the right one. Honors aired uncomfortable facts of life at sea that the military leadership often ignores. The captain as an individual is toast, but the part of the civilian world that celebrated his ouster was wrong to do so. Such outrage will end up harming the civilians whom the military is designed to serve.

There are serious problems in today's military that it did not create but must address to the satisfaction of its civilian masters. Human beings are created with a sex drive, and the civilian world has demanded that first women, and now openly gay people, be integrated into largely closed-quarters situations that have historically operated by the rules of straight males. It's not Neanderthal to note that men and women socialize differently - men by aggressing one another and women by supporting one another (see the work of Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen). It's not homophobic to point out that most people are more comfortable being naked around strangers whom they think (perhaps wrongly) have no sexual interest in them. That's why we have single-sex bathrooms in public places.

It's the tenor of our times to go ballistic on anyone who notes these elemental facts. But noting them is just what we should be doing, as a way of defusing tensions and persuading people to accept difficult situations. I think Honors realized that problems everybody talks about privately become worse if the command structure pretends they don't exist. He's like a parent who decided to make clear to his kids that he knew they were thinking about sex and drugs, and to take control of the topic. He should get a medal for being proactive.

Among those problems: the fact that on a tight-quarters ship, masturbation (frowned upon in the 19th century but now generally accepted) becomes difficult. The fact that plenty of straight servicemen and women fear showering with people of the same sex but a different sexual orientation. The fact that profanity is overused. The executive officer frankly referenced those facts with his insider videos on the ship's closedcircuit TV. They were meant for one audience; now they're being seen by another.

There's no question that the humor is "male." It's aggressive, name-calling and ribald. But then again, most of the viewers were male and military. Should a leader who wants to connect with his troops channel the garden club? Shouldn't he borrow, as Honors did, from "Caddyshack"?

The videos are funny, at least to the right audience, the one that they were made for and that was, until now, the only one to see them. (They're also clever, including "casting" ripped men as women for a shower scene and pasting Honors's face on his "alter egos.") And the increasingly conservative military does feel put-upon by civilian standards of political correctness - the captain tries to defuse objections at the beginning by announcing that "bleeding hearts" will disapprove. (How right he was!)

And why are we shocked, shocked, at someone publicly using profanity to blunt its power and prod us to ask why we're addicted to it? Remember Lenny Bruce? Remember George Carlin's "seven words you can never say on television"?

On camera, Honors says he's heard rumors that some sailors were upset by his earlier videos but adds that nobody objected directly to him. This bugs him, and while it's impossible to know what point he's trying to make with this scene, it is true that the military discourages anonymous, secondhand complaints. People are taught to say what they have to say. But in today's military, from the earlier tyranny of the majority, we've gone to the other extreme: the tyranny of the minority, in which the most sensitive sailor or soldier has the power to hold the majority hostage. Meanwhile, the service still has to harness male aggression to get its job done.

Do we really think that sexually mature (and largely frustrated) young men and women on deployment and charged with killing enemies cannot bear to hear the words used in these videos? Do we think they're unaware of the problems of same-sex or mixed-sex or mixed-sexual-orientation intimacy that the closed quarters of ships, submarines, showers or sleeping quarters can create? They deal with these issues by joking about masturbation, gay sex, having things shoved up their rectums - all the subjects that their executive officer was showing them they could joke about and move on.

The worst offense to many viewers of the videos seems to be Honors's use of a word usually meant as a gay slur. He's not referring to someone believed to be gay, but to one of his "alter egos" and to the video's audience, Surface Warfare Officers, who (the self-deprecating inside joke has it) are not as cool as pilots. It's an inclusive joke, not an exclusive one, with the captain referring to the SWO "alter ego" sitting to his left (but who has his face) as "the kid in the 'swoveralls.' " ("Swoveralls" is a joke, too. Get it?) Yes, the captain uses a slur, but not to make fun of gay people. Everything depends on context - in this case, the insular confines of a ship at sea.

My understanding of Honors's frustration comes from 23 years as a civilian professor at the Naval Academy, living daily the increasing divide between military and civilian culture. I think you have to take a stand about coarse stuff such as this, and mine is not the captain's. I had a gay brother who died of AIDS, so I start each semester by telling the midshipmen they may not, in my classroom, criticize something as weak or unconvincing by calling it "gay." Their whole generation does so, so it's spitting in the ocean, but you have to start somewhere.

Similarly, I forbid "retard" (I have a daughter with Asperger's syndrome) and "suck" (which is not only sexual in nature but linked to anti-gay taunts). And then I explain why these terms are hurtful. What I do not do is punish them for saying these words or explode when I hear them, as some civilian viewers and television commentators did when they saw the Enterprise videos. First I gain their trust, and then we talk about the issue. I'm not Honors, and I think my way works better. But at least he was trying to do something, and not just pretend that there are no issues.

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a military gay rights group, did a victory dance when the Navy declared the videos "clearly inappropriate" and promised an investigation. This was unwise, as it seemed to affirm the military's belief that now it is going to be held hostage to the most sensitive members of a huge community. There are times when I have been told to teach to the most easily shockable student I can imagine, to say nothing that could give offense. This cheats and demeans midshipmen, and it's very destructive of morale and effectiveness in the fleet.

Military 101 for viewers of these videos: The military is not like an office. It requires bonding far beyond what someone who goes home at 5 p.m. can imagine. It involves a lack of privacy foreign to the civilian world. It demands, in combat situations, self-sacrifice that most civilians have no idea of. It also requires aggression and force, two things typically associated with men. In short, the military is to a large degree more like a football team in a locker room (and out) than it is like a civilian workforce.

These things have a sexual side: Marines, for instance, can use the f-bomb as every part of speech. It helps the "devil dogs" focus and provides a common language. So putting women on board ships may be what the civilian world requires, and it may have a net positive effect (opening service to 51 percent of the population, say), but it also creates new tensions. Women and openly gay people can be integrated into the military, and should be, if the tenor of the civilian world for which the military works demands it. But they must adapt to military reality. The armed forces will be decimated if we allow any of these groups to always call the tune.

The results of the Defense Department's recent survey of attitudes toward "don't ask, don't tell" showed that there is still significant concern about lifting the ban. These concerns can be handled by addressing them directly, explaining, for example, that the gay guy in the next shower probably just wants to go to bed, and not with you. But discussion starts with acknowledging the problem - joking about it at first, if need be, but not dismissing the anxiety.

Honors could have pretended that these issues don't exist. Instead, he used the medium and vernacular of his sailors to let them know that he understands their struggles with life at sea, and to encourage people to talk about them openly rather than let them fester. He's gone, but let's hope his willingness to discuss real problems will stay. The purpose of repealing "don't ask, don't tell" was to allow people to say things, after all. It's counter to the spirit of that repeal to demand silence.

Not to mention destructive to the military and to the civilians it defends.



Not Affirmative, Sir; A Well-Meaning Admissions Board's Absurd Reality

The Washington Post (PDF)

By Bruce Fleming

February 16, 2003

Last year I was a member of the admissions board at the U.S. Naval Academy, where I have been a civilian professor of English for the past 16 years. The experience brought one thing home to me with great clarity: Affirmative action, racial and otherwise, is a minefield of practical paradoxes.

Like many institutions of higher education, the Naval Academy uses race as a criterion in its admissions process. The practice leads to obvious absurdities, even inequities. For this reason, the Bush administration's decision to oppose racial affirmative action in college admissions seems like a good thing.

At the same time, it's difficult not to sympathize with the goal of representativeness implicit in all affirmative-action policies. In the academy's case, it does seem important to have black and Hispanic officer-candidates when so many of the men and women in the fleet are black or Hispanic. It's not that an individual black Marine, say, needs a black officer to inspire him to follow orders, only that he needs to know there are such officers, somewhere, maybe even right here. In the military, a lot depends on "morale," that hard-to-quantify measure of satisfaction. It wouldn't help to say, "Of course Miss America can be black" if she never had been. At some point you have to put your money where your mouth is. Here, as elsewhere, the professionals, not the politicians, may have the better sense of things.

Still, the absurdities produced by the present system make me doubt whether we're going about this the right way.

Members of three racial groups receive preference: African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. (Collectively, they make up about 20 percent of the 1,200 students admitted to the class of 2006, according to the academy's Web site.) But in 2003, it is increasingly unclear what we even mean when we say "African American." In a recent discussion of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe's novel "Things Fall Apart," some of my students (all white) amused me by referring to the characters as African American. I corrected them, then realized that for them this was the only polite way to refer to black people. We on the admissions board learned as the months went on that "African American" can be quite literal. A student whose parents had emigrated from Ghana, we found, was considered a member of a "protected" minority, the same as a student whose family came here generations ago in chains. Does that mean the policy is meant to benefit not just the disadvantaged descendants of slaves but also newly arrived immigrants? Apparently not all of them. An applicant whose parents had emigrated from India was ineligible for preference. The question remains: Whom exactly is the policy meant to benefit?

Hispanics, of course, can be any skin color. Many Cuban and Dominican immigrants are, by most people's standards as well as their own, white. I have had students with Spanish parents, white by my visual "once-over," who entered Annapolis as "Hispanics." Was this the intent of the directive? If not, what was? The board also debated whether students of Brazilian origin "counted" as Hispanics. They speak Portuguese and are therefore Lusophone, not Hispanic. Yet what's the difference between a Brazilian and someone from a neighboring Spanish-speaking country? When we say "Hispanic," do we really mean "brown-colored and poorly educated"?

As for "Native Americans," they are almost by definition members of other racial groups as well, usually overwhelmingly so. Most Hawaiians, for example, are a comfortable mix of many immigrant groups to the islands. Yet we give greater weight to an applicant's, say, one-eighth protected ancestry than to his or her seven-eighths unprotected ancestry. The same is true for all mixed-race students, a growing minority.

For USNA purposes, as for those of the U.S. Census, membership in any of these categories is based on self-identification. A student may check as many boxes as he or she wishes. As long as the student checks one of the three boxes for protected minorities, he or she is assigned to an officer on the admissions staff who then actively shepherds that application through the rest of the process. In the fall, we were told that if a student checked the Native American box, we could ask for confirmation of tribal affiliation. Yet by mid- year we were being told that we could not. Early in the year, one applicant told an admissions officer she was one-eighth Hispanic. But one-eighth was enough, and in any case we later learned we couldn't even ask about the percentage.

This led to apparent howlers like the student with an un- Hispanic last name attending the flossiest private school in his part of Texas, who identified himself as Hispanic and received preferential treatment. There have also been cases of "minority" students being identified as "white" by their schools. (We debated whether we could nail these applicants for lying, but finally decided that a school's visual impression could not be taken as fact, either.)

In a year on the USNA Admissions Board, I never got a sense of the underlying philosophical justification for this clearly illogical policy. Initially we were offered the plausible reason that the Navy wanted more officers who "looked like" the sailors and Marines. Yet later, perhaps as someone realized how controversial this line of thinking was, it was withdrawn, and we were given no reason for favoring these particular groups. Was it to make up for past economic inequities? Then we should eliminate special consideration for the rich ones. To make up for the horror of slavery? Then we should eliminate it for the recent immigrants, as well as for anyone who couldn't prove having had an enslaved ancestor.

If, on the other hand, what we were really talking about was skin color, I suggested with would-be Swiftian irony that we send out paint cards with varying skin tones and ask applicants to circle the one closest to their own: Browner than a certain level would lead to preference, lighter would preclude it. We wouldn't have to dance around all these other categories that weren't really the point. The reaction, of course, was shock. We can't do that! Of course, we can't. But this is why our current situation is so untenable: If we're aiming for colorblindness, we can't get there via color- definition.

Before students reach our board, the computer generates a number (called the "whole-person multiple") based on complex algorithms that take into account their grades, their rank in class, their test scores and their athletic and extra-curricular activities. Being a child of an alumnus adds a bit to this score, but only as much as, say, an especially good essay: 500 points, where a total of 68,000 is considered a good solid admitting score and 75,000 is stellar. Rank in class is very important, which tends to benefit high- achieving students at mediocre or rural schools, but some attempt is made to equalize this by giving students credit for attending a school that sends a high proportion of its graduates to college.

For me, the most startling discovery was how immense an advantage is gained by checking a protected-minority box. First, in practice (there are few hard and fast rules), we let in members of these minorities with a much lower whole-person multiple than we usually require, sometimes as much as 15 percent lower. If a "majority" student scored 600 or more on each part of the SAT I test, math and verbal, we put a check mark and went on to consider other aspects of the application. We did so in the case of a "minority" student if the scores were in the neighborhood of 550. For a minority student with scores in the low 500 range but also compensatory achievements, we usually recommended a year at the Naval Academy Preparatory School. (Admission to USNA is guaranteed for a student with a GPA of 2.0 after a year at NAPS.)

Last year, a half-Hispanic applicant challenged the Naval Academy on the grounds that his low test scores had been cited as a reason for his rejection. The irony is that in practice we already accept lower scores from Hispanics than from white or Asian students. His were even lower than our lowered threshold. In any case, many factors can be used to "mitigate" either high or low scores. They are not, as this applicant imagined, absolute criteria. Race, to a degree, is, and his having checked the box "Hispanic" already gave him a huge advantage.

For the most spectacular effect of self-identifying as one of the three protected minorities is that the student is admitted to the academy directly, along with a certain number of athletes and young sailors and Marines (assuming he or she has been voted in by the board and passed the rigorous physical exams). That means admitted at the head of the line, without having to further compete for a sometimes hard-to-get nomination from a member of Congress or the executive branch that otherwise is the sine qua non of admission to any of the nation's military academies. Counting all the favored groups, about 50 percent of students offered admission to the Naval Academy have bypassed this nominating process, which leaves so many highly qualified non-favored students going to State U instead.

After a year on the USNA Admissions Board, I find I am in favor of eliminating all our set-asides: racial, athletic and fleet- determined. After all, admitting someone "direct" means that another candidate, probably with a higher whole-person multiple, does not get in, since most of those who must compete for nominations are "better" on paper than the direct admissions. This in turn means that, to whatever degree, the capability of the officers down the line -- those who will have their fingers on the buttons -- is at least arguably watered down. The Navy shouldn't want this; the United States shouldn't want it.

But that's not the only reason for my concern. While all aspects of affirmative action warrant reassessment, for now the focus is on racial preferences. And I am convinced that, at bottom, the administration is right: Race has become far too blunt an instrument for ensuring "diversity," even if it is used as one of several criteria (Condoleezza Rice's solution). In an immigration-altered society no longer polarized into "black" and "white," the racial categories on which affirmative-action policies depend have begun to break down.

It is philosophically justifiable to say -- as the Bush administration should be saying, but isn't -- that we want the American dream to be open to all. In the Navy's case, that means the Naval Academy, the officer corps and other leadership roles. But "solving" the problem by deciding what we want our naval leadership to look like and then letting into the academy people who will help produce that profile, is, as the current situation shows, worse than no solution at all, since it is inconsistent with the goal of ultimate colorblindness.

Some argue that if we stop doing this, the academy will once again look much the way it did during the lily-white years before integration, with a few atypical exceptions. Yet there is something worse than having the enrollment of black students at elite institutions drop in the short run. That is, sitting idly by while society remains stratified to the point where the only way to get large numbers of black and other minority students into elite institutions is by cooking the books. We need applicants who can get in on their own merits. If this means more intervention, earlier, in disadvantaged communities, so be it. In the long run, it is the only tenable solution. Bruce Fleming has just finished a memoir of his first decade teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy, from which he is currently on sabbatical. This article represents his personal views.