A Three-Word Headline From 1979 That Continues to Cause Headaches for the Writer of the Story

Marine Platoon Commander Jim Webb in Vietnam.

When magazines write headlines for stories, the writer is sometimes involved but usually the magazine’s editors decide what headline will work best, given the layout, without any input from the writer. That’s what happened in November 1979 when the Washingtonian published a 7,000 word essay by Jim Webb about why he didn’t think women should serve in combat situations.

Webb had been sent to Vietnam after graduating from the Naval Academy in 1968. He served as a Marine platoon commander and was awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts for his actions in combat.

The citation for Webb’s Navy Cross:

“The Navy Cross is presented to James H. Webb, Jr., First Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism while serving as a Platoon Commander with Company D, First Battalion, Fifth Marines, First Marine Division (Reinforced), Fleet Marine Force, in connection with combat operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam. On 10 July 1969, while participating in a company-sized search and destroy operation deep in hostile territory, First Lieutenant Webb’s platoon discovered a well-camouflaged bunker complex which appeared to be unoccupied. Deploying his men into defensive positions, First Lieutenant Webb was advancing to the first bunker when three enemy soldiers armed with hand grenades jumped out. Reacting instantly, he grabbed the closest man and, brandishing his .45 caliber pistol at the others, apprehended all three of the soldiers. Accompanied by one of his men, he then approached the second bunker and called for the enemy to surrender. When the hostile soldiers failed to answer him and threw a grenade which detonated dangerously close to him, First Lieutenant Webb detonated a claymore mine in the bunker aperture, accounting for two enemy casualties and disclosing the entrance to a tunnel. Despite the smoke and debris from the explosion and the possibility of enemy soldiers hiding in the tunnel, he then conducted a thorough search which yielded several items of equipment and numerous documents containing valuable intelligence data. Continuing the assault, he approached a third bunker and was preparing to fire into it when the enemy threw another grenade. Observing the grenade land dangerously close to his companion, First Lieutenant Webb simultaneously fired his weapon at the enemy, pushed the Marine away from the grenade, and shielded him from the explosion with his own body. Although sustaining painful fragmentation wounds from the explosion, he managed to throw a grenade into the aperture and completely destroy the remaining bunker. By his courage, aggressive leadership, and selfless devotion to duty, First Lieutenant Webb upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.”

Webb’s 1979 Washingtonian story was published with this headline and deck:

Women Can’t Fight

“Your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable—it is to win wars,” Douglas MacArthur told the 1962 West Point class. In this story, a Naval Academy graduate, a combat veteran of Vietnam, says the country’s fighting mission is being corrupted, with grave consequences to the national defense. One of the main problems, he says, is women.

After publication, Webb called me, asking, “Why’d you put that headline on the story?”
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Fast forward to 2017 when the Naval Academy Alumni Association decided to name Webb as one of the academy’s five graduates to receive a Distinguished Graduate Award. Webb had gone on from his service in the Marines to be Secretary of the Navy in 1986-87 and he was Virginia’s U.S. Senator from 2007 to 2013. After leaving the Senate, he often was mentioned as a potential presidential or vice presidential candidate.

After those selected for the award were announced, some female graduates of the Naval Academy protested. A Washington Post story on March 28 was headlined:

Under pressure, Jim Webb
declines to be recognized as a
distinguished Naval Academy graduate

That led to this response from Gordon Peterson, who had served with Webb in Vietnam:

Our recent class-wide communications relating to Jim Webb’s decision to decline to accept the Alumni Association’s distinguished graduate award sought to keep everyone informed on the state of play over several days in late March.

Still, owing to the rushed way that events played out, I wish to clarify a number of areas that should be of interest to all alumni. Some critics who opposed Jim’s award made spurious allegations that defame Jim Webb’s truly distinctive and multifaceted career. At the same time, it appears there is not widespread awareness of his actions during government service that advanced the assimilation of women into the military—including our women alumni who have served in our Navy and Marine Corps faithfully and with distinction in peace and war.

Critics’ indignation, expressed at times in ways that wrongly mischaracterized Jim’s support and dedication to the advancement of women in the military when he was Secretary of the Navy and a U.S. senator, was based on his Washingtonian magazine article published in November 1979. In it, Jim expressed his views on the twin issues of women attending the Naval Academy and serving in combat. During the late 1970s, the legal and congressional debate intensified over the repeal of the combat-exclusion law.

Jim did not write the article at the Academy during his one-semester stint as a visiting professor and writer in residence in 1979. He did interview midshipmen, but at that time he had started to write A Sense of Honor. He left the Academy early in 1979 after one semester when he was offered the chief Republican counsel position on the House Veterans Affairs Committee—a rare opportunity given his age at the time. Responding to an earlier suggestion from the editor of the Washingtonian magazine, Jim began to write his article and alerted the superintendent by letter.

Jim’s opposition to opening the combat arms to women reflected his experiences commanding a Marine rifle platoon and company in Vietnam when the intensity of the ground war was at its height. At that time, U.S. killed in action averaged more than 400 a week. Over a three-month period, despite replacements, the strength of Jim’s platoon was reduced by half owing to the number of his Marines killed and wounded. Jim was himself wounded twice and highly decorated for his actions (including the Navy Cross, Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, and two Bronze Star Medals).

With respect to women attending the Naval Academy during the 1970s, Jim was not alone in harboring concerns at the time he wrote his article. Indeed, according to H. Michael Gelfand’s history of the Naval Academy (Sea Change at Annapolis), former Academy superintendents like RADM William R. Smedberg III and VADM James F. Calvert held similar views. However, just as VADM Calvert’s opinions in this area evolved over time, so too did Jim’s. Unfortunately, in an otherwise meticulously researched book, Gelfand makes no mention of this nor Jim’s actions as Secretary of the Navy to expand the opportunity for women to serve in the Navy and Marine Corps.

In 1987, for example, in an address to the Brigade while serving as Secretary of the Navy, Jim said, “I am not biased in any way on the issue of women here at the Academy or in the naval service, and in fact feel strongly that men and women should be treated equally in such matters.”

Some critics allege Jim has never apologized. In fact, he addressed the issue during his Senate confirmation hearings to be Assistant Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Navy during the 1980s (affirming at the latter hearing that “I have no desire to roll the clock back” with respect to women attending the Academy). More recently, while campaigning for the U.S. Senate in 2006, Jim said that he was “fully comfortable” with the “roles of women in the military today” and “with women’s ability to lead men.” During that campaign, Jim also issued a statement expressing regret for any pain his writing had caused, noting that times had changed, and that he should be judged by what he did in the intervening years to expand opportunities for women.

In late March, after the Alumni Association informed him that some alumni opposed his DGA selection, Jim issued a statement that said, in part, “Thirty-eight years ago, during an intense national debate regarding the issue of women serving in combat, I wrote a strongly argumentative magazine article about women in combat and at the Naval Academy. Back then, emotions about the Vietnam War, in which I had fought as a Marine, were spilling over on both sides of this debate. Clearly, if I had been a more mature individual, there are things that I would not have said in that magazine article. To the extent that this article subjected women at the Academy or the armed forces to undue hardship, I remain profoundly sorry.”

Jim concluded by saying, “Our military women have served with dedication and valor in Afghanistan and Iraq, with more than 160 killed and 1,000 wounded. The more than 4,600 women who now have graduated from the Naval Academy have achieved great success. I salute their service and like all Americans I look forward to their continued achievement.”

Jim’s record is clear with respect to women-in-the-military issues when he was an Assistant Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Navy, and a U.S. senator. When I served on the Chief of Naval Personnel’s staff in 1987 to 1989, I observed how his actions, on his own initiative, led to the greatest expansion of opportunity for women to serve in the Navy’s history. Jim tightened the definition of “combat mission” to open nearly 9,300 sea billets so women could serve on 26 additional ships of the Navy’s 37 ships assigned to its combat logistics forces. Additionally, women were authorized to serve with Navy shore-based reconnaissance squadrons. He also directed that vigorous corrective and preventative actions be taken to stop sexual harassment and to punish those found guilty of it and other inappropriate or unlawful behavior.

The policies that Jim approved increased the number of major command billets in which women could serve—a critical factor in their subsequent career progression. At the same time, it was responsive to a concern that RADM Robert W. McNitt ’38, the Academy’s Dean of Admissions, noted in 1985 when the Academy sought to increase the number of women in the Brigade. As noted in Gelfand’s history, Dean McNitt felt, “the current limitations on availability of ‘meaningful’ women’s billets” following graduation was a hindrance in achieving that goal.

Similarly, as Jim’s military legislative assistant when he was a U.S. senator, I again witnessed his support for policy changes that expanded opportunity for women to serve in the military (e.g., assigning women to submarines) and other legislative measures to stop sexual harassment. As chairman of the Personnel Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, Jim consistently supported the inclusion of legislative provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal years 2011, 2012, and 2013 that required the Department of Defense to revise and improve its policies, programs, training, and oversight in this area.

Of direct relevance to our nation’s service academies, Jim “fire-walled” his academy appointment’s process, forming a small committee of retired officers to screen and recommend nominations to him. One member of this committee was a woman alumnus of the Naval Academy.

Within the space of just a few days during the last week in March, Jim needed to respond to what he was told by the Alumni Association’s retired flag officers overseeing the Distinguished Graduate Award program. He issued the following statement 28 March to announce his decision to decline to accept the DGA:

“Over the past few days the decision by the Naval Academy Alumni Association to include me as a recipient of this year’s Distinguished Graduate Award has been protested by a small but vociferous group of women graduates based on a magazine article that I wrote 38 years ago. While this article was controversial, many of these protests have wrongly characterized my reasons for having written it, my views of women, and also my record of government leadership in addressing opportunities for women in the military and in our society. Having opened up more billets for women in the Navy than any Secretary of the Navy before me, it is particularly ironic to see that these same women who are criticizing me for a magazine article in 1979 have benefited so greatly from the policies I unilaterally put into place in 1987.

“I did not apply to be considered for the Distinguished Graduate Award, nor did I participate in the decision to give me the award. My classmates from the Class of 1968 nominated me. I believe this nomination was made based on my leadership performance at the Naval Academy, my record as the most decorated combat veteran of this class, my having become the first Naval Academy graduate in history to serve in the military and then become Secretary of the Navy, my having become one of only three (now four) Academy graduates ever to be elected to the United States Senate, and my literary and journalistic achievements, including having written what is widely recognized as the classic novel of the Vietnam War, as well as having received an Emmy Award for my PBS coverage of the Marines in Beirut in 1983.

“It is also appropriate to mention that I wrote and guided to passage the Post – 911 GI Bill, the most generous veterans education bill in history, which has already enabled the education of nearly 2 million veterans.

From conversations with the Alumni Association, including information passed down from top Navy leadership in the Pentagon, it is clear that those protesting my receipt of this award now threaten to disrupt the ceremonies surrounding its issuance. I am being told that my presence at the ceremony would likely mar the otherwise celebratory nature of that special day, and as a consequence I find it necessary to decline to accept the award.

“Since my support and dedication to the advancement of women in the military have been so wrongly characterized, I am including below the statements of three women who have worked directly for me during my time as Assistant Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Navy, and as a United States Senator.”

The three women strongly supported Jim’s receipt of the distinguished graduate award. They were a retired Air Force colonel and official in the DoD’s Senior Executive Service, an active-duty rear admiral and member of the USNA Class of 1985, and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

From 1981 to 1984, CAPT Leon A. “Bud” Edney ‘57 served as the Commandant of Midshipmen. He dealt directly with the significant difficulties women faced at the Naval Academy during those years. Three years later, when Jim was Secretary of the Navy, then-VADM Edney served first as the director of the Office of Program Appraisal on Jim’s SECNAV staff and, later in 1987, the Chief of Naval Personnel. Following Jim’s resignation as SECNAV, VADM Edney wrote him a letter. According to author Robert Timberg ’64 in The Nightingale’s Song, the future four-star admiral, Vice CNO, and Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic said, “I have come to respect and admire your leadership, integrity, and intellectual capacity more than any other individual I have been privileged to serve under in my 31 years.”

Following the events of late March, retired GEN Al Gray, a former Commandant of the Marine Corps, had this to say in an April letter to Jim: “In my humble judgement, there are few, if any, more Distinguished Graduates of the USNA than Jim Webb and, most certainly, NONE since 1950 when I joined our Corps! Further, you did more for Women’s opportunity in the Naval Service than all your predecessors put together!”

I’ll leave my final words on this sad affair to COL Mike Wyly ’62, Jim’s company commander in Vietnam. He attended the DGA ceremony in March and the dinner that followed (where he offered a toast in Jim’s honor).

In his letter to the Alumni Association’s selection committee endorsing Jim’s DGA nomination, COL Wyly wrote, “Jim Webb embodies humanity’s two greatest virtues, courage and integrity. It often takes courage to tell the truth regardless of personal consequences. In all the years I have known Jim Webb, even under the toughest pressure, he has never compromised on either. If Jim says it, it’s true. And if it’s true, he has the courage to say it—and he will.”
—–
For added perspective, here is a note that Howard Means, one of the editors on Webb’s 1979 Washingtonian story, sent to Peterson:

Capt. Peterson —

My friend Tom Stouffer, USNA Class of ’66, sent me your recent alumni magazine write-up on Jim Webb, knowing that I had been a staffer at Washingtonian magazine back then and had played a part in the publication of the article in question. I thought a clarification for the record might be in order.

Webb’s article was an important contribution to the then-heated debate about integrating women into combat, but it might have passed quietly through the radar had it not been topped with an incendiary headline: Women Can’t Fight. I was in the room when we were kicking around heads for the article, and “Women Can’t Fight” practically brought us to our feet. In magazine terms, this was a great sale. Who could resist reading an article under that banner? But Webb, who didn’t see the headline until the magazine was on the stands, instantly hated it because, I suspect, he sensed even then how it reduced a spirited but nuanced argument to a three-word catchphrase that might haunt him for years to come. Denying him the Distinguished Graduate Award he so richly deserves is further proof of how right he was.

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