The crude videos the Navy needed

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BY BRUCE FLEM­ING Bruce Flem­ing is an English in­struc­tor at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of “Bridg­ing the Mil­i­tary-Civil­ian Di­vide: What Each Side Must Know About the Other.”

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 closed-cir­cuit 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 they­may not, inmy 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

Ev­ery­thing de­pends on con­text — in this case, the in­su­lar con­fines of a ship at sea.

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.


Capt. OwenHonors of the air­craft car­rier USS En­ter­prise was re­lieved of com­mand af­ter rev­e­la­tions of bawdy on­board videos that he pro­duced fea­tur­ing gay slurs, mas­tur­ba­tion jokes and other hu­mor that the Navy deemed “in­ap­pro­pri­ate.”

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