No dirty videos, please - we're in the Navy

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2011

Never in its history has the military been quite so squeamish about sex.

American society is, of course, openly obsessed with sex. But the military - long a bastion of randy soldiers and raging hormones - is moving swiftly in the opposite direction. Its discomfort with copulation exploded into public view with the recent firing of the captain of the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier on the eve of its deployment to support the war in Afghanistan.

In 2006 and 2007, Capt. Owen Honors starred in a series of shipboard videos in which he pantomimed masturbation and peered into showers at pairs of semi-clothed men and women. Within 48 hours of the bawdy videos surfacing on the Internet, Honors was sent packing.

He left in good company. About half of the 17 Navy skippers who lost their commands last year were fired for sexual dalliances. The Army and the Marine Corps have similarly adopted zero-tolerance policies for any kind of sexual indiscretion. These days, battlefield commanders are far more likely to lose their jobs for marital infidelity than for martial failings.

"With the Americans, it was quite extraordinary," said Emma Sky, a British civilian who spent several years working as an adviser to top American commanders in Iraq. "As a woman, I found the U.S. military to be one of the best places to work because they had completely removed sex from the equation. It is the most un-sexist environment I have ever worked in."

Still, the military's extreme sexlessness in the midst of so much killing left Sky a bit uncomfortable. "It is not quite natural," she said. "It really is a bizarre moral code. I would joke with them that they were a bunch of Christian jihadis."

The sex habits of soldiers, sailors and Marines may seem like a trifling matter amid the travails of battle. But the sexual mores are emblematic of a growing gulf between a military focused on fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a society that is increasingly losing interest in the distant conflicts. No other major wars in U.S. history have been fought with a smaller percentage of America's citizens in uniform - there are roughly 2.4 million active and reserve troops in a country of more than 300 million, making up less than 1 percent of the population.

The military's isolation in rural mega-bases and the increasingly hereditary nature of service have further compounded the distance between soldiers and society. "My big fear is that we'll have a military that is essentially a speck of Sparta in the midst of Babylon," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales. "I worry the military will become an institution that has essentially excepted itself out of society."

Sky cites a similar concern. "Americans have placed their Army on a pedestal," she said. "You want your military to be of and from the people, and not above them."

The military's leadership wasn't always expected to be quite so monastic. In the early 1930s, Gen. Douglas MacArthur returned to Washington from the Philippines with a 16-year-old girl whom he installed in a hotel on 16th St. NW, according to a biography by historian Geoffrey Perret.

When a syndicated columnist started to ask questions about his underage lover, MacArthur reportedly told his aide, then-Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower, to get her out of town. "I like to tell my students that on the plains of West Point we have a statue honoring a statutory rapist and another statue to someone who aided and abetted him," said Lt. Col. Robert Bateman, a military historian.

During World War II, prostitutes were often forced to undergo examinations by military doctors in an effort to keep soldiers healthy. Along those lines, Gen. George S. Patton famously opined that "a man who won't [expletive], won't fight."

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