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By Bruce Fleming


The Montréal Review, January 2017




Recently, my sons’ middle school band played a tune the program identified as the “Theme from M*A*S*H.” Actually this is Johnny Mandel’s “Suicide is Painless”—a title theme we clearly don’t want to suggest to adolescents nowadays. Realizing that even the song’s title had become problematic, I decided to find out what else had changed since the first ecstatic time I saw Robert Altman’s 1970 movie (that inspired the long-running TV show) as a 16-year-old high school senior in the stuck-in-the-1950s town of Salisbury, Maryland, USA. So I watched the movie again, this time “on demand” on my flat-screen TV. What a jolt.

Back at the end of the 1960s, this movie, at least to me, had seemed like a huge hilarious middle finger to The Man. Watergate hadn’t happened yet (the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. has just re-opened, with a 60s theme and many references to the famous burglary that took down President Nixon: the room cards say “No Need to Break In”); the US wasn’t yet talking with the North Vietnamese—now we’re buddies with the re-united Vietnam ruled by the north, which probably makes your running shoes. In Nixon’s Vietnam-era America, this movie was the height of good-guy and -gal pacifist chic. The bottom line of the movie was of its time too: sex is good, the military is bad.

Watching it now, I realized that we’d gone through the looking glass in the US. Nowadays it’s just the opposite: the military is good, sex is bad. Back then we said Make Love Not War. Now we say Make War But if You Mention Sex You Are Guilty of Sexual Harassment. The 60s are dead.

For Altman (script by Ring Lardner, Jr.), heterosexual consensual sex, which is the only kind portrayed, is liberating. The male officers in the just-behind-the-front-lines-in-Korea of the title surgical unit (standing in for Vietnam) have their female officer sweethearts, including the CO. Sure, it’s gender-stereotypical, not to mention hetero-normative. The women are nurses; the doctors are male. And those who resist the ubiquitous sex are only hypocrites or repressed. The disapproving doctor (Robert Duvall) who tries to thwart this rampant sexual pairing-off is humiliated when he himself is caught having sex with the one nurse who tried to uphold Army standards (Sally Kellerman), and is carried off in a straitjacket.

Unacceptably for today, all the women are addressed by sexual nicknames. LT Dish, Hot Lips. Hot Lips is a hypocrite too, who really just wants sex though she doesn’t know it, and is humiliated by having her lovemaking with the disapproving doctor carried over the camp radio. But that’s not enough: the whole camp, men and women alike, line up to watch as the shower curtain of the bath tent is cut to see if she is a natural blonde (i.e. what color her pubic hair is). At first she is livid, threatening to resign her beloved Army commission. The CO is nonplussed. “So resign your goddam commission, Hot Lips,” he says, in bed with his female squeeze as Hot Lips barges in to protest the humiliation to which she has just been subjected, the shampoo still in her hair.  

Hot Lips is being targeted because she is “regular Army” and wishes to uphold Army standards, which none of these wise-cracking doctors do. The surgeons are all drafted, and all, it seems, were Ivy League football players who know each other from games. Hawkeye, the Donald Sutherland character with the characteristic three-note whistle, remembers a game against Dartmouth’s Eliot Gould, the “chest cutter,” and then a game with another doctor, played by Michael Murphy, whom they meet on assignment in Japan.

Occasionally the attempt is made by people other than Hot Lips to impose Army discipline, but the doctors, whose services are needed to clean up the mess the military is making, merely dismiss these. “For God’s sake,” says Trapper/Gould dismissively when the MPs come to take him into custody, and walks away. And when the CO in Japan, where the wise-cracking surgeons have gone on a sweetheart assignment for a barely wounded Congressman’s son, tries to stop them operating to save the life of a Japanese-American baby (whose existence he disapproves of), they get him drunk on laughing gas and take incriminating pictures with a geisha, apparently to ensure his cooperation after the fact.

There’s no question that some of this is mean. But anarchic laughter is apparently the only way to stay sane amid the senseless slaughter that brings new wounded men by helicopter every hour. Hot Lips is humiliated, but comes around. The Robert Duvall character, the one for whom her lips were hot, is beyond redemption, apparently because he prays a lot, and is first of all ejected from the cool guys’ tent, and then finally carried away in a Jeep. The anti-gay humor, unacceptable these days, is thick: the “best-equipped dentist in the Army” fails to get it up a single time and concludes that he is a “fairy”--the hummable theme song is sung when the surgeons pretend to help the dentist commit suicide with a “black capsule” which puts him to sleep, and then send in LT Dish to reassure him his manhood is intact. She’s later shown in a helicopter flying home with a big smile on her face.

All this is unimaginable nowadays, and yet back then it was on the side of the angels. The alternative, after all, was a naked Vietnamese girl running down the road with American napalm burning her back in Nick Ut’s famous photograph. (Another change since the ‘60s is that in 2016, Facebook tried to ban this picture as child pornography, before it relented.) That’s why, according to most commentators, Canadian backpackers abroad took to putting a very large Maple Leaf on their gear: they might look and sound like Americans but they most decidedly weren’t. (The habit has persisted.)

I’m in my 30th year teaching at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. From that vantage point I have a front-row seat to some things the 60s would have understood, starting with the US military brass’s swaggering incompetence (and the heroism of many of the soldiers and sailors), similar to the Vietnam-era assurance of guaranteed success and mounting body counts by the war’s masterminds, the “best and the brightest” of David Halberstam’s bitter history.  The debacle of Iraq and Afghanistan, which cost what President Obama called ”lives and treasure” (and hugely more lives and treasure to the people of these unfortunate countries), is still with us, since it’s this generation’s Vietnam, and not just in the US (check out Britain’s 2016 Chilcot report), and will be with us for many years.

The military does bluster: fake it till you make it, or rather fake it even if you don’t make it. If you say it loud enough and authoritatively enough, chances are people will believe you. I see this every day. At the Naval Academy, the administration tells our students many times weekly they are “the best and the brightest,” apparently with no irony. Certainly not the brightest: our standardized SAT scores of entering students (the US standard exam for college-bound high school students) are lower than those of our state university, the University of Maryland at College Park, because the brass run a full-bore Division I (large university) football program at our smallish undergraduate college, all at taxpayer expense, with recruiting to match for that and or all other sports. (They also admit radically lower-qualified non-white students to have minority student bragging rights—thereby shutting out the better qualified students who could have served in the armed forces on graduation. The purpose of our institution is not education but the production of officers.)  They inflate selectivity statistics at a rate of what my best estimate is about a rate of 4/1 (actual statistics have been denied me despite repeated attempts to find out the truth). This is bad not only because it’s lying, something the military claims it doesn’t do, but because in the US, the more applicants a school rejects the more “selective” it is and the higher its rankings. To get the high selectivity percentages that they tout, they count not just legitimate applicants (there is an industry standard definition of what constitutes an applicant which they claim exemption from using, without explaining why), but also all the applicants to a week-long summer seminar for high school students (only a third of whom attend the seminar) as applicants, as well as applications that are little more than name and address (incomplete applications aren’t supposed to count).  

And as for telling the students, all of whom are in the military, that they are “the best,” this is troubling in a democracy where the purpose of the military is to defend civilians. The military’s conviction that it is better than civilians leads, in other countries, to banana republics and coups d’état. It’s not a good idea to start on that slippery slope of telling the military it is superior to civilians.

It’s not just the Naval Academy that is padding its resume with lies. As in the 60s, the military once again, in our post-9/11 world, has grown fat on its own entitlement: malfeasance is covered up for as long as possible and taxpayer-supported perks are taken as givens—with more gladly accepted. The military was going to save us from the bad guys, and nothing was too good for it. At least that’s what the brass seem to believe. Check out coverage of the “Fat Leonard” scandal from 2015-16 and perhaps beyond, and perpetrated by many USNA graduates, where a Malaysian businessman bribed US Naval officers with prostitutes and benefits to steer ships to his docking facilities.

It’s well known in politics and economics that monopolies wish to remain monopolies because they don’t have to deal with competitors, and inevitably as a result of the lack of competition grow fat and inefficient. The military is a monopoly, a hook-me-up culture that sees itself as superior to the civilians it is supposed to defend—not just the service academies, but all the military. It explains the fact that things like adultery are crimes under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ)  by announcing proudly that it is “held to a higher standard”—but also criminalizes sodomy (including oral sex) and anything the commanding officer thinks is prejudicial to “good order” This isn’t being held to a higher standard, just a job-specific one, the way the failure to run fast or catch the ball isn’t a problem for anybody but a professional football player. Can’t play the notes if you’re in the Philharmonic? You can be fired. And it’s not because you’re being “held to a higher standard.” 

Military corruption and the “gimme more” attitude isn’t new, as anybody who lived the 60s knows. That was the big discovery about what President Eisenhower, in his farewell address, famously called the “military-industrial complex.” They’re a business, and they like being in charge. What’s new since the 60s is that corruption is largely hidden from the eyes of taxpayers by our worship of all things military, the very opposite of the disdain of things military of the 60s. Nowadays, surprisingly to a child of the 60s, we collectively adore the military, or are told we should do so. That’s the subject of Andrew Bacevitch’s book about our fascination with a video-game-like version of the military, “The New American Militarism.” It seems like a cool game to us. (Prof. Bacevitch, a West Point graduate and professor at Boston University, lost his son in Iraq.) But then again, that’s because such a small percentage of the population is in uniform, and their actions are so far away.

Still, we all apparently get a vicarious thrill from what they do. Nearly every professional sports event in the US nowadays features a uniformed service member coming out during quarters or at halftime, whom we applaud when told to do so. The novel and now movie of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—the novel by Ben Fountain, and the movie after this by Ang Lee—about a group of soldiers flown over to be part of such an exercise and then back, makes the exploitative irony of this clear.  But it’s not just pro sports. The chain restaurant located in a free-standing building in the parking lot of the Annapolis Mall, local to me, has parking spaces reserved up front for “Military Veterans.” Seriously? Even if they were support staff at Ft. Leavenworth and now are 30? They can’t walk ten feet? This isn’t handicapped veterans, mind you, or old folks—there are handicapped spots for those—just anybody who wore a uniform. Just to say thanks and “Support Our Troops,” as the bumper stickers say.  Or what of the “10% off for military members on Thursday” sign I saw recently in a local coffee place. On a $3 coffee they save 30 cents—only on Thursdays. But the sign showing the shop “supports our troops” stays up all week.

Why this strange adulation of the military? No draft. The difference between the 60s and a half century later is that nowadays the US military is all volunteer, whereas in the 60s you were told you were going into the military. Nobody wants to bring this back, and we don’t need it. It’s not World War III, or even Vietnam, where at the height of the conflict almost all age-appropriate and non-deferred men were called up. Anyway, who would pay for everybody being in uniform?  

 But with no draft, we have to sweet-talk the military with flattery, and pay them well. And no, the probability of their coming back to Dover in a box is not large. Subs is the most lucrative service option in the Navy—when was the last time we lost a submarine? And then there’s the post 9/11 GI Bill that lets even Annapolis and West Point graduates, who already got college at taxpayer expense, work for five years (wraparound health insurance, salary, housing) and then get business or law school at taxpayer expense as well. Want a guaranteed cushy life these days at taxpayer expense? Join the military. A percentage of you will come back maimed or dead or psychically out of whack, but for the vast majority of you, it’s a great deal. And you can die in your car on the freeway too: highway deaths are climbing. We lost a total  of about 4,000 people in Iraq for the entire operation over more than a decade (with countless uncounted Iraqis dead not tabulated); over 30,000 Americans die on the road each year in traffic accidents.

We owe military members our respect, but not our adulation. And we owe respect to a lot of groups: doctors, lawyers perhaps, judges certainly, first-grade teachers, med techs, and the people who repair bridges, just to name a few—in fact all people who care for children or work a job, whether indoors or outdoors. Nowadays it’s suggested that everybody in the military is a “hero,” In the 60s many of those in the military felt dismissed or attacked. Now we worship. The proper position is between these two.

As a child of the Vietnam era, I ought to be anti-military. But I’m not. I’m pro-military. As a civilian employee of the US Department of Defense (as about half its employees are), I can see things from the perspective of the military. And what I see is pretty ghastly. Nowadays the military has been turned into a vote-getting machine by politicians, who use the military to promote social change at what seems to those inside it dizzying speed. Instead, they should be treating it as a necessary tool that does ugly things when told to do so. That means understanding that what allows the military do this job best—it involves killing, after all—is nothing at all like what we want to see in the socially conscious rainbow-coalition they would so dearly love to see back home.

After lifting the ban on out gays in 2011 and accepting transgender members in 2016, the US military now actively “welcomes the LGBT community,” as an official e-mail I got recently had it. (What evidence is there that, say, bisexuals feel themselves to be the same community as transsexuals?)  And in 2016, the brass are also implementing the politicians’ policy of all billets being open to women, including Marine Infantry as well as EOD, SEALs, and Rangers, the Special Warfare classifications.

Canada has accepted out gay service members since 1992.  Reports find that there has been no diminished effectiveness, and that now straight military members see no problem with the ruling—whereas before it was implemented, they did. Of course not: the military tells people what they are going to do. And they accept, or at least say they do. We can get any results in the military we say we are going to get; that’s the nature of a top-down command structure that doesn’t tolerate dissent. Before the ban on gays was lifted, that’s what service members had to obey. Now they have to obey something else. In neither case is the issue self-definition or self-affirmation. But that’s exactly how the new-to-US policies are being sold.

The official letter of Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus of 25 February 2016 asserts that “a diverse Department [of the Navy] fosters creativity and fuels innovation,” and that “Organizations that embrace myriad backgrounds and perspectives will attract the best talent and remain ready”—to do what? He says that the Navy will “review policy options to maximize the opportunity for all those who desire to serve our Nation.” Who says myriad backgrounds “attract the best talent”? The military is a specific enterprise. Maybe some backgrounds are not congenial with the enterprise? What about attitudinal anti-establishment types as I was at 18? Is that desired in the military? And does this mean that the Berlin Philharmonic, which until recently was all German white men, wasn’t “ready” and was sub-par? Maybe they need more Turkish immigrants to be “ready”?

I’m all for self-affirmation, what US politicians are using the military to promote. That was the mantra of the 60s, after all. But the problem is that I understand after 30 years that the military can’t be about self-affirmation. As the mantra of the Naval Academy has it, the scale of priorities in order from most to least, is ship, shipmate, self.

What a difference the disappearance of the draft makes! (Canada does not have a draft, because it does not typically fight big wars by itself. So it can afford to follow a policy of self-affirmation.) Back in the 60s, being forced into the military in the US was a bad thing. Now it’s an opportunity to “serve our Nation” that should be available to everyone. The military as a self-affirmation tool: what a switch for someone who came of age in the 60s!  Will we treat all criteria of choice, for the military or elsewhere, as if they were nothing but attacks on individual self-realization that for that reason have to be removed? If our goal is to allow everybody to join the military, we’ve only started by allowing women, transgender people, and out gays to be a part of the action. I can’t join the Marine Corps because I am over 35, even though I could probably fulfill the physical requirements. For that matter, the physical requirements of the Marine Corps eliminate many people regardless of age. You have to do all right on an intelligence test too or you’ll be rejected—exclusionary, for sure.  A pro-American Canadian or German or Thai citizen can’t just show up and enlist to “serve our Nation.” Is this discrimination?

Even if you can join the military, you can’t choose what you’ll do in it. For starters, if you are 18 you aren’t going to be an officer, which requires a college degree. You can’t be a SEAL just because you want to be. (BUD/s, the school for aspiring SEALs, has an attrition rate of about 80% and you have to picked to even try it. Recent failures have killed themselves. Exclusionary? Absolutely.) To be picked for flight school, you have to have perfect eyesight and can’t be too tall or too short. Surely all these barriers could be lifted to “maximize the opportunity for all those who desire to serve our Nation.”  But let’s say they’ll find you a uniform of some sort: you certainly don’t get a vote when you’re deployed. Or what campaign you’re used in. Or whether you get promoted.

In the military, they tell you, you don’t tell them. The military, nowadays spun in the US as a good way to be who you are, is in fact fundamentally collective in all countries, not individual. It’s not about the desires of the individual but the needs of the collective. I discuss these issues in my English classes. We read Voltaire’s Candide where the title character is impressed into and almost killed in a senseless war, and Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war novel of World War I trenches from the German perspective, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” about soldiers being sent to their certain death.

Soldiers are used at the whim of the (sometimes incompetent, always fallible) brass. Soldiers and sailors are cogs in a machine. And the machine can be misused, and frequently is, which results in death and injury for individuals. So how did we get the notion that “serving our Nation” in the military was a way to valorize who you are?

We have decided that sexual orientation or gender identity will not be used as criteria for joining the military; fair enough. But it’s not mere exclusion to have criteria at all. We could for example demand the right of the wheelchair-bound to “serve our Nation” in the military, an opportunity they are now denied. Not all billets require physical activity, after all: if you’re on a ship or a submarine, for example, you would probably be fine. Surely the requirement that all pass boot camp is exclusionary? Some people aren’t physically strong enough—probably there are billets they could fill if we looked hard enough. What about the no longer young? We could demand that 70-year-olds be allowed to enlist. Of course we’d give something up if we let anybody serve, as we would if we allowed the wheelchair-bound to play in the NFL.  But if the principle of including this group was important enough to us, we could certainly include them.

Everything has a price tag. And there is a price tag for using the military as a self-affirmation pipeline for the groups politicians want to privilege at this particular point in our history. The unchanged fact is that men are most enthusiastic about following only a stronger man. Not a woman. Not someone whose gender has changed, in either direction. Are most men Neanderthal knuckle-draggers for thinking this way? The social reformers insist that this is so. But what does it matter why they think this way if they do? Nowadays social reformers aren’t interested in how men do think, and in accepting that this might have a reason. Instead they’re interested in changing how men think. Good luck, because there is in fact a reason why they think this way.

Frequently a comparison between and the forced racial integration of the US Armed Services, mandated by President Harry S Truman, is used as a means of dismissing any objections to the forced integration of women, gays, and transsexuals.  Troops may well have been uncomfortable with the effects of forced racial integration, so people point out, but they had to get over it. They’ll get over this one too.

In fact I hear over and over, “they resisted integration, now they’re resisting women, gays, and transgender people.” But it’s facile to make an easy parallel of skin color and gender or sexual orientation.  What’s common between resistance to these groups and resistance to non-whites is only the fact of resistance: we can’t assume on that basis alone that the two are comparable. And indeed they are not.  (Presumably they would resist opening combat to men in wheelchairs too; does this mean it would be a good idea?) Sexuality is understood as the underpinning of (the precise phrase is hotly disputed) actions, whereas skin color implies nothing besides itself.  Once you accept the skin color, life goes on as before.  But acceptance of a certain sexuality and hence the possibility of sexual attraction does imply something further: potential actions.  This is true whether the sexual attraction is gay or straight, involving women or men.

Sex/gender and sexual orientation are not the same as skin color. This fact is surely at the basis of our continued societal division of public places where nudity or undress is tolerated such as locker rooms and bathrooms into gender-divided spaces, while we’ve long ago given up race-divided spaces for such things.  And this is the source of the ongoing transgender bathroom scuffles. The somewhat outmoded assumption is that gender division of such spaces eliminates the possibility of sexual actions.  It was never true that it eliminated them completely, but surely it was a basic first step.  Now we have greater public awareness of the fact that sexual orientation is less predictable from gender than most people thought. Such public awareness of the fact that a specific gender does not imply a specific sexual orientation would logically imply a finer tuning of the rules for such places, though this creates so many problems it’s unlikely to happen.

The military is supposed to defend civilians, not serve as an agent of social change or an arena for self-actualization. Most men see aggression against the enemy as part of their masculinity. They can be wrong, of course, but if that’s the way they see it, why are we so insistent on showing them they are wrong? Answer: because we care more about the military as a field for civilian social engineering than we care about it as an effective tool of national policy—politics by other means, as Clausewitz had it. If this were World War III, we might care enough to try and get the most effective military. Nowadays pitched ground battles don’t happen, and most military theorists say there will never be another D-Day.

Instead the US engages in various questionable escapades using a few Special Operations troops (still all male, and where gender is not irrelevant) supported by a huge iceberg of office managers handling technology, whose gender may in fact be irrelevant. So fine. Let’s take the devil’s advocate position. Only a tiny fraction of the military engages in combat these days; most of the rest of it is bureaucracy in a uniform, and quite a lot of it mimics office culture, where you are a bureaucrat in a uniform and go home at the end of the day. So squishy things like whether you are putting out 100% for your CO, or whether your morale is high, probably don’t really matter—except when they do. So what if gender-neutrality in the military reduces effectiveness in the combat niches? The niches are very small.

Unsurprisingly it’s these combat niches that are most concerned at the use of what they do to further a social agenda: the US Marine Corps has upped its physical requirements, which according to some commentators is to ensure that women can’t meet them. And a single female SEAL in an otherwise nut-scratching SEAL team seems too ghastly for the Spec Warfare world to even take seriously. Even if we can find the one woman in a thousand (ten thousand?) with the requisite upper body strength, she’ll completely knock the male bonding for a loop. Men simply respond differently to women than to men: advocates say this is the attitude that has to be changed, and this may be so. But it’s clear that we’re going to pay for it. Maybe not enough to care. There are many reasons why missions succeed or fail, and unit cohesion is only one factor. And meanwhile advocates for these groups get to feel good about themselves. That’s not chopped liver, as New Yorkers say.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe—to be frank—what our military does isn’t that important nowadays. We pay for the military, after all, so maybe we should see the poster girls we want to see. Let’s say a few more SEALs die; we at least get to see females brought back in boxes to Dover. That’s what we wanted, apparently, and now we’ve got it. And SEALs die for the craziest reasons: Erik Kristensen, our USNA student who came back to teach briefly in my English department, died because his helicopter crashed into a mountain: nothing to do with gender. We will have the people we want to see in the military, and can never prove a negative: this SEAL or Marine offensive failed because they had a woman or two in the group. So what if they had to lower physical standards to get her in? What is the probability that she’ll have to be the only one available to carry a wounded man 100 lbs heavier than she?  Not zero, but also not great.

So why not, after all, use the military to advance social agendas? Sure. Make the skin color and sexual orientation of the members first priority. But we should be clear that what we’re doing is far more pro-active than merely dismantling barriers, as Secretary Mabus has it. We’re trying social experiments to ensure that the military looks the way we want it to look, not whether it is most effective. Similarly, in the civilian world, we’re ensuring that college classes, and now college faculty, look the way we want them to look. I even read that the push is on to have the Baltimore Symphony, and all orchestras, be more racially non-white. You thought that the only thing that mattered was how well they played their instrument? Think again. (This is the sadder because audiences for symphony orchestras have been drying up for decades.)

Perhaps there’s an inverse relation here in both the military and the Baltimore Symphony: if it really matters, we’ll go with capability rather than gender/skin color/sexual self-definition. Few people demand women be let into the NFL, probably because we actually care about that. The military and the Baltimore Symphony are so marginal it may not matter—except, of course, to the people in them.

What experience teaches us is that when social experiments are underway, advocates don’t give up until they get the results they postulate. They won’t accept small victories, say a handful of women SEALs and Rangers, because it’s too close to the zero they started with. That means that the hope is vain that we can let the chips fall where they may and maintain previous standards. A single woman who can cut it isn’t going to be enough, any more than a “token” African-American is in other contexts: we just make that the primary quality, as the admissions to the taxpayer-supported US service academies has lower standards for self-identified non-whites. As a society, we want to see the rainbow coalition spread out in organizations that matter to us. So we won’t accept tokenism. Women are 51% of the human race, after all. Why not postulate that as our goal? And when we start failing female-to-male transgender soldiers on physical tests who can’t perform at male levels, we’ll simply eliminate the concept of a male level of performance at all. We have the goal of what we want to see, and experience suggests we’ll do anything to achieve this.

Back when men were assumed to be straight, women were welcome in specific military functions only, and everybody was clearly one sex or another, things were simpler. This isn’t said with a sneer: simple is the way organizations that use individuals as cogs in a machine (as the military does) like it. The military doesn’t treat its members as individuals—it looks at their uniforms (male, female, what rank?) and makes a decision not on the person but on the uniform. You don’t salute an officer because you respect that person, but because of the uniform. In a world as complex as this, it would be one option for the military to just give up patrolling sex, as in the world of  M*A*S*H. But they’re not doing that. They’ve gone to the opposite extreme: doubling down. They’ve brought the pot to boil and are clamping down the lid even tighter.

The paradox is that accepting out gays and now transsexuals in the military, we have ushered in a new puritanism. Men, women, gay, straight and all in-betweens are mixed together. Everybody agrees that sex in the ranks is mission-negative. But now the chances of problems are so much higher. The USNA administration is crowing that the new class is 28% female—because they can let in anybody they want, and they want women. Who live with and beside the men in a single dormitory. Gay and straight are mixed in rooms—sexual orientation is not grounds for moving anyone, they say. And nobody knows what will happen with transsexuals—it’s a long process of transition, after all. Maybe the near future will bring us just randomly chosen gender-neutral 3-person rooms? But where else in the world are things this “progressive” except in the military? In a civilian college, you can change roommates. Not at Annapolis. Because the assertion is that there is to be no sex, ever, of any sort. And the brass can simply order you to do what they say. Where’s the self-determination in that?

At USNA we are in the mode of complete sexual repression. Not only is any public expression of sexuality, starting with hand-holding, forbidden for anyone at this military base (think how ridiculous it is to declare this “college” a military base), there are a thousand secondary prohibitions on non-public behavior: between members of the same company (one of 30 student administrative units), as first-year students (plebes), anyplace on campus. And in the fleet, things are just as bad. In fact there almost no situations in the military where sex is allowed even off hours—which doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. On the job everybody is usually somebody’s superior or subordinate. And if you’re the same rank and make an unwelcome pass after hours, you’re liable to be slapped with a sexual assault court-martial.

Thus policing prohibition of any form of sexual expression occupies most of our energy at Annapolis these days—as a synecdoche of the same pressures in the fleet. I think of one student last year who was caught studying at night in an otherwise empty classroom building with his girlfriend on his lap. Both were found guilty of conduct violations and underwent 60 days of restriction to quarters, and had to march up and down for hours with a rifle to ponder their iniquity. The man was several years older than most college students. A man in his mid-20s in college disciplined for having a consenting girlfriend on his lap as they studied, and the girlfriend too? Seriously?

Not just actions but (this is the newest wrinkle) talk as well. Talk! Lifting the protection of gay service members in the US by saying they couldn’t be asked about their sexuality, popularly called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), doesn’t mean greater openness about acknowledgement of sexuality, but less. The military has moved to impose a ban not only on actions with any degree of sexual buzz, but on talk as well, on all its members, not just gays. Lifting DADT for gays did not free them to talk openly about their sexuality; it prohibited everyone from doing so. That may be fair: it’s equal-opportunity repression. Nowadays any reference to sexuality or sex of any sort is held to be potential “sexual harassment,” a notion that has evolved to define normal actions between men and women as punishable offenses, or even referring to them.

The mandatory training I have to undergo every year on this topic once stressed that for sexual harassment to have occurred, the person who was offended had to object, the offender had to continue his (as it invariably was) comments or actions. The POSH, Prevention of Sexual Harassment, training for 2016 does away with all that. The objector (referred to as the “victim” even if later it is found that no sexual harassment has occurred) no longer has to object to the person accused of sexual harassment, the objection can come from someone to whom the remarks were not addressed, a single incidence can do it, and the person found to have sexually harassed need not have intended to do so. The training therefore is aimed at getting people to avoid all references to sex under any circumstances, anything that might, even if overheard by a prudish or odd third party, be found to cause offense. We are clearly meant to be so asexual in word as well as deed that no one can ever take umbrage at what we say.  Even if we think what we’re saying is physical—say facts of human reproduction, which includes sexuality—someone else has the last word. We needn’t have meant to cause offense, but if someone is offended, that’s that.

It all reminds me of how I was hauled into the principal’s office of my small-town high school in Salisbury, Maryland, stuck in the 1950s even though it was by this point 1969 or 1970, because I’d been discussing a New York Times article I found interesting on the school bus: the driver was shocked and offended, and complained. The article suggested that washing the woman’s vagina with acid or base solutions could help influence the sex of a subsequent child, as one was a more congenial environment for male sperm and the other for female. For me it was information, but for the bus driver from the country around Salisbury, it was salacious and had to be stamped out.

Well, time has come full circle and that’s just where we are today at Annapolis. Students are encouraged to be offended at anything a faculty member says in class; this results in an “official investigation” with faculty members hand-picked by the Dean, who then gets to punish for “sexual harassment,” even if students have not made this charge. We got rid of using words to expel people as gay under DADT, but have reinstated the focus on words that can offend anyone, as well as the prohibition of any action seen with a sexual component, such as hand-holding or lap-sitting. Rather than specific repression, we now have general.

It’s not morally repellent to point out that when the military was largely assumed to be straight males, and actually still is so with a few exceptions, we didn’t have these problems. Did individuals pay the price? Sure. But individuals pay a price now. Morale is higher when you can address a group of straight males as a group, not strip references to gender and sexual orientation from everything you say. If the needs of our society are to forbid this because it might hurt the feelings of the few people who don’t fit this profile, ok. So long as we know what we’re doing. Actually neither the civilians who control the military nor the military brass eager to implement what they’re instructed to do in order to make it to retirement have a clue what they’re doing. They’re all flying blind. And it’s taxpayers, whom the military exists to defend, who pay the price in terms of an increasingly chaotic military focused on transgender soldiers rather than on winning wars.

Will I be just as respectful to a woman in uniform as to a man? Sure. Will I want to follow her as much up the hill? No way. Will I criticize trans-gender men or women? No, because I believe in people doing their own thing. Will I be eager to have someone as complex as this tell me what to do? Of course not. And (sorry to be the bearer of bad news) neither will most other men. Will I do what this person says if the whip of a court martial drives me to do it? Sure. The military can always make people do what it wants by increasing punishments for not doing it. Will I like it? No. And in the military liking it or not liking it is huge. It can make the difference between victory and defeat. Can other factors determine this? Sure. So maybe the fog of war justifies all policies.

The military is not a 9-5 job. It’s not one you can quit or leave. It’s a life. That’s what the advocates of women, or gays, or the trans-gender have forgotten, or never known. But now because we’ve decided we want to be inclusive of non-standard sexuality we have to shut down sex entirely. We can’t talk about it, we can’t assume it.

Now no sex in the military. No talking about sex either. Any reference to sexuality is cause for administrative censure, and any assumption of hetero-normativity. The Navy is still 85% male, but we cannot assume that they want women, or that what seems to be a man or woman is a man or woman. The correlation of the shift from being an assumed straight male organization to the gender-inclusive one we now promote is that no sex is good sex. All are merely rifle-carriers. This is mission-negative because, as advocates point out for their minorities, sexuality is part of self-identification. It’s true for the majority as well, and now their self-expression of identity is forbidden. 

How much of this, if any, will change under President Trump? Will he be able to make it the 60s again? It seems doubtful, even if a Trump administration ceases punishing colleges using Title IX, and a Trump Department of Defense ceases training telling the men they are potential rapists, as they do now (and as my male students repeat to me). And if they can, for how long? The Democrats, and Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote. And it isn’t the 60s.

In the US, we still sell the military as macho to boys back in Tennessee and Arkansas.  When they discover that, whatever a president does or doesn’t do, it’s just a job like an office and nothing like an athletic team, I don’t think they’re going to be so eager to sign up. Maybe drones, machines rather than actual people, really are the warfare of the future.




September 2016


Bruce Fleming is the author of over a dozen books and many articles, listed at www.brucefleming.net His degrees are from Haverford College, the University of Chicago, and Vanderbilt University. He taught for two years at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and for two years at the National University of Rwanda. Since 1987 he has been an English professor at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis.


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