The latest of the military’s sordid history in dealing with sex and the unnatural crimes and bad behavior that come with this most natural of human activities was reported last week.
The former commanding officer of the Blue Angels was relieved of his current duties because, according to several news sources, authorities received a complaint that he had “tolerated sexual harassment, hazing, and lewd behavior” while serving with the premier U.S. military flight demonstration team. The complaint described an atmosphere at the Blue Angels as “rife with sexually explicit speech, the open display of pornography and jokes about sexual orientation.”
In today’s charged environment, even allegations of “tolerating” sexual impropriety in a previous duty assignment can mean being relieved of one’s current duties and the end of what otherwise would have been a bright and successful career.
For those not in or associated with the military, one needs to know that military officers have a commission not for their own benefit, but to serve “at the pleasure of the president.” So even allegations of lack of leadership in the military — whether or not they are ever proven in a military court — are enough to “displeasure the president” and cause punitive relief of duty assignments and the end of careers.
Being found guilty before being proven innocent is backwards from the civilian legal understanding of “innocent until proved guilty.” But there is no “right” to serve in the military in a leadership position. In matters of military honor and leadership, being guilty before being proven innocent is an understood part of military culture, especially today. None of this is or should be a surprise to military officers.
Nonetheless, there are those who will lament today’s environment in the military as overreach, demasculinizing, and unnecessarily disruptive. There is some truth to this lament. Yesterday’s Playboy calendar or aircraft nose art are today’s lewd behavior — even sexual harassment.
And, too, there are a few on the other end of the spectrum who would question the need for a vetting process to weed out only but the highest performers in organizations like the Blue Angels, the Marines and Special Forces. These “rites of passage” tend to, these folks might argue, lead to hazing. And they hold women back who are not and cannot be as physically strong or who are not as overtly aggressive as men. Zero tolerance for machismo. Machismo is on a progressive scale of bad and even criminal behavior, these extremists might say, that starts with an attitude of male superiority, passes through sexual harassment, and can end in sexual assault. There is likely some truth in this belief as well.
Sending machismo to a hidden underground is not the answer. Neither is the end of rites of passage — effectively legal hazing — that necessarily ensure only the best, the strongest, the brightest and the most capable form the core membership of our elite military organizations.
No. It isn’t these that are going to solve the Blue Angels’ problems. There is a far simpler solution, the suggestion of which is sure to rile up the most extreme of those in favor of unfettered gender equality in the military. Why? I’m going to use the old fashioned, even sexist, term: “gentleman.”
Why does it seem there were fewer sexual harassment cases and sexual assaults in the past? Were there fewer in the past than today?
I think so. Some of the reasons include a blurring of gender roles and the increasing number of women in the military. Better reporting is another reason. But regardless of the reasons, bad and criminal sexual behaviors are worse today than in the past.
This perspective comes not from some fancy study or a glossy, professionally-bound sexual assault training manual, but instead from spending 27 years in the Marines in an at-that-time, male-only combat specialty. Yes. I hold up the possibility that my own memory is blurred. While male-only, we were mostly gentlemen.
Raised in the 1950s and 1960s, we boys were raised to be gentlemen. My dad and coaches beat it into us. As a young Marine in the 1970s, I was trained to be a gentleman. I had examples to follow in my leaders.
We’re not raising our boys to be gentlemen any longer. Neither are we training our military men to be gentlemen.
Many of the military sexual harassment and assault prevention programs and policies will have some effect. Some will not. But perhaps the simplest answer to the Blue Angels’ challenges and, frankly, a good part of the scourge of bad and criminal sexual behavior is this: you wouldn’t want your sister, mother, or wife to be treated this way. Why treat your female teammates any differently? Act like a gentleman.
Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.