FRONTLINE Interview with James Webb FRONTLINE Interview with James Webb

In April1996, Webb delivered a powerful speech at the Naval Academy accusing the Navy's current leaders of failing to defend its hallowed traditions and unique culture for the sake of their own careers. He cited the destruction of careers in the post-Tailhook turmoil, noting in particular the cases of Admirals Jack Snyder and Stan Arthur. Webb asked: "Who expressed their outrage? Who fought this?" The Annapolis midshipmen gave him a standing ovation.

Webb was Naval Academy, Class of '68, and served with distinction as a Marine in Vietnam. As Navy Secretary in the Reagan Administration, he resigned over the issue of fleet reductions.

Q: Your speech gets a standing ovation. Why?

WEBB: I don't know. It was not a speech that I took pleasure in giving, but it was something that I believe very strongly needed to be said for the good of the United States military, not simply the Navy but the military as a whole. There was a wide diversity in the audience. There were a lot of retired military officers, many of them admirals, but also more than 25 percent of the Brigade of Midshipmen came voluntarily during their lunch hour. So there were the future, I don't want to say the past, but the people who had certainly passed the torch, and active duty people who were there. I didn't know what the reaction was going to be. I expected that there would be some people who would like it and agree with me, and others who did not. And I felt gratified by the fact that a lot of people did seem to find resonance in my remarks.

Q: What did you want to get across?

WEBB: Looking at what had happened to the Navy, particularly since Tailhook. I think it's important to say that a lot of these problems are not Navy-specific problems. They are problems that the American military as a whole is grappling with. But they were made worse by the failure of the Navy leadership to defend its culture from Tailhook forward, so that the Navy became the focal point on it. But looking at where the Navy was, and the way that the senior leadership was reacting to the political process, the demands that the political process were putting on them, and in some cases, demands that I believe actually were beyond the Constitution, and not seeing anyone stand up and say that this was enough, not seeing any active duty military people do that, I was born into this culture. And I was asking myself, why? What has happened to this institution from the time that I observed it first as a young boy.

Q: What was your life like at Annapolis? Take me back there.

WEBB: I have classmates who I met 10 years after we got back from Vietnam. Everyone was talking about post traumatic stress and that sort of stuff. And we'd sit down and we'd say, "Do you have any nightmares about Vietnam?" And people go, "No, but I still have nightmares about plebe year." It was a very tough place. And being able to make your way through it, there were a couple of things that you had to have in the back of your mind. You had to adjust to these demands. And you had to develop a sense of accountability and self-discipline and all the rest of that. You knew you were giving up a lot, in terms of what you could be doing out in the rest of society. And there were very few benefits that you got out of that. You got an education. I had an engineering degree that was mandatory. I did not want to be an engineer. But the principal reward of going through that system was that you were then entrusted with the responsibility to lead young Americans into harm's way.

Q: Why the Navy? Why the military?

WEBB: I have a family tradition of military service. My father was the only career military person in the family, but there was a very strong feeling in our culture, which is basically the southern mountain culture, that you had an obligation to put something back into your society, one way or the other. That, coupled with my own interests when I was a kid-- I was a golden gloves boxer. I loved the outdoors. All of those things combined, so for me, that was a natural way to go spend part of my life. And then I fell in love with the Marine Corps when I was at the Naval Academy.

The interesting thing about the Marine Corps is, it attracts, a wide variety of people who, at bottom, are very competitive people and who do well in different ways. Some of them do well as businessmen. Some of them do well as hit men. The Marine Corps attracts people who are motivated and a lot of people who, as was I, have something of an authoritarian complex. I didn't like people to tell me what to do. And so you get attracted to this institution that's so strong that on the one hand, it's going to break you. But on the other, when you become a part of it, you become a part of the best. And the Marine Corps's always attracted those kinds of people.

Q: What was your feeling coming into this speech?

WEBB: The reality my life has been that I've been selected by chance to become a messenger, in a way. I have an odd career where I've been able to work inside government and in a lot of different ways: in the Congress, in the executive branch, as a military person. But I've also been able to observe it in a very independent way, as a writer, as someone who doesn't have to shape my views based on being inside a structure. But I was hearing for several years, from so many people that I respected and that I admired, about the difficulties that good people were having, post Tailhook, that something needed to be said. And my basic feeling, coming into giving this speech, was that I knew that there was going to be controversy from it, but that it had to be said.

Q: Because?

WEBB: Because sometimes the only way to force a system to react is to hold a mirror up to its face.

Q: And when you hold that mirror up to the Navy's face, what do you see?

WEBB: It's not what I see. It's what they saw, or what I wanted them to see. And it wasn't directed at any one individual. I was saying, "Where were all of you when these things were happening? Where were you? Where were the admirals? Where were all of you?" And it needed to be said in a public forum so that people could sit down and really think about what their personal obligation was, as opposed to what their career desires were. If you truly believe in this culture or in your obligations to your country, as executed through the military as a culture, then there are times when you have to put the well being of the culture above your personal desires. A lot of people were not doing that. Now, perhaps it's because these issues became so confusing that they didn't know how. But it certainly had to be said that this has gone on long enough.

Q: Tailhook. How do you think it was handled by the leaders of the Navy?

WEBB: I think it was handled very poorly by the leaders of the Navy. And I say that with sadness, not with disgust. When I did Nightline, they asked me if I'd ever been at a Tailhook convention. I said no. They asked me if I had been Secretary of the Navy and I was there, what would I have done? And I said I would have found the senior admiral present, and I would have told him to go clean that up. And if it hadn't been done in a certain period of time, he would have been relieved. This was before the larger ramifications started falling out. That is the way that it should have been dealt with.

A certain amount of partying, I don't think there's anybody in America who can sit down and say that these guys should have been sitting around drinking lemonade. Give them a break. Egregious behavior by a handful of people should have been dealt with. They should have been dealt with at Tailhook convention, before it got out of hand. And certainly, once it was put on the table, those people should have been dealt with aggressively. And then, the leaders of the Navy should have turned around and defended the culture of the Navy.

And what happened was, the way to deal with this got so strung out by the different investigations and by indecisive action, that inevitably over a period of time, people with political agendas or personal agendas used this incident to bring the culture of the Navy at large into disrepute. And that's the great failing of Tailhook. And that's what differentiates the Navy's situation today from the other services, in terms of the concern that people have over the direction the service has gone and is going.

Q: You said "political agenda". Whose political agenda?

WEBB: Well, there's no doubt that political agendas were quickly brought on the table, in terms of how far and how fast you can assimilate women into operational billets in the Navy. And because of the Navy, the operational nature of the Navy, winning on that issue meant broad victories in other services.

Q: When you say "defend the culture", how? Let's be specific. Who should have done it? How would they have done it?

WEBB: That's what leadership is all about. The Acting Secretary of the Navy himself, g who had never spent a day in the military in his life, stood up in September of 1992 and announced that the Navy had a cultural problem. He said, "We get it," quote, unquote. The Navy has a cultural problem. "Cultural" as in ethos, as in who you are, what your traditions are. Not simply that we had a problem at Tailhook, but that the Navy as an institution has this problem. The way to have defended that would have been the other way around. And the more truthful and accurate comment about what the Navy is, as an institution, as evidenced by hundreds of years of performance on behalf of this country, rather than through some, reaction to a short-term political attack.

Q: What do you think the implications are to the guys in the fleet....

WEBB: I can't be in a position of telling you the reaction in the fleet. I know it's pretty clear that there's a lot of confusion in the Navy on these issues. I know when I spoke at the Naval Academy in April, it was amazing to me to see the environment that the midshipmen were in. I had them come up to me. I spent several hours in Bancroft Hall, just walking around. Had my son with me, and had kids come up wanting books signed, or to talk about different things. The two most frequently asked questions to me were, number 1, "How can you be successful if you continually take these stands?" It was just mind boggling to them, inside today's military. And then number 2, not in the form of a question but in the form of statements, "I can't talk to this other person if this other person is of a different culture or a different sex. I'm very uncomfortable." I had one midshipman who was a Korean American, who, in front of 4 or 5 people, just sort of unloaded, saying, you know, "My friends are afraid even to tell a joke in front of me." This is one of the major spin-offs of all this, is just, everything has become, so infused with on the one hand, political correctness, and then on the other hand, this stovepipe that's gone through all of American society, not just the military, where we pay people just to watch other people. That's what all this EEOC stuff is. I wonder how many billions of dollars it costs American industry today, when we pay people just to sit down and report on other people.

Q: What does that do to the warrior culture?

WEBB: There are so many different things that impact on what you would call the warrior culture, that it's very difficult to break one away or another. I think if you want to talk about the warrior culture, the place to start is Vietnam. Not because of what happened on the battlefield. Hanoi just announced last year that they lost 1.1 million combat soldiers dead and another 300,000 still missing. We did our job. But because of what happened in the age group that either fought the war or didn't, where such a great percentage of the achievers of the age group chose not to go into the military, and when you infuse that into the professions that they went into, and roll it over another generation, there is such a misunderstanding of what even the term "warrior culture" means, that's the place you need to have to have a discussion when you talk about what's happened to the warrior culture.

Yeah. I was watching the Olympics, and the girl who did the vault to win the team, gold medal for the United States, gymnastics girl, Kerri Strug, I admire her tremendously. And immediately, she was a hero. Anointed as a hero. What she did, I thought, was extremely courageous. And I admire her a lot. But I sat there and I couldn't help but think about acts of true heroism that I have seen, or that I have known about. There was a guy named John Paul Bobo who won the Medal of Honor because he got his leg blown off and stuck his stump into the ground and fought until he died. You know. That's a hero. And this country, the majority of it, can't even relate to that any more. That doesn't even comprehend what it takes to do it. And it's lost not only its respect but its ability to form a respect for it.

So that's what's happened to the warrior culture. We have had a smaller and smaller percentage of the country announcing that they're going to take an oath and put their lives on the line. And on the other hand, just a total lack of comprehension of what the values are that make that culture work.

Q: In the backwash of Tailhook, we see a number of aviators' careers start to fall apart. Tell me your feelings about that.

WEBB: I would approach that on three levels. First, on a personal level with the respect that I have for these individuals and for what they've been willing to do for this country, I have a very emotional reaction, to see these kind of people, these guys and what was happening to them.

Secondly, watching what happened to other people, who weren't necessarily flagged but who were seeing what was happening in the Navy at large, very good people, and deciding that they were going to pull the chalks at 20 years. Including an individual who was one of my aides when I was Secretary of the Navy, who I believe was a sure shot admiral, just looking around and saying, " we see the compromises that are being made. This is not the Navy that we knew. And we're leaving." So there's another block, even separate from the people whose careers totally got crashed, who lost their way of life, in a way. They're going to go out and fly for Delta or something. But the country is not going to get the same benefit out of their leadership. The Navy is losing the very people that should be in there pushing it back to where it needs to be.

The third reaction that I had was as someone who'd worked in the Congress as a committee counsel, wondering what Constitutional justification there really is for the Senate Armed Services Committee to decide that after the promotional process is done, that it can conduct a separate political review on these mid-level officers. This is not the same thing as coming in for CINC PAC or something where your job has political connotations. These are people who have gone through a sacrosanct promotional process, only then to have to go through a separate political, process over in the Senate. I think that's Constitutional over-reaching. I would fault not only the Senate. Again, I would fault the senior leadership of the Navy for not saying, "I cannot accept this for my institution."

I think all these three issues are connected by one very key concept. That is a vote of confidence in the senior leadership. No senior leadership should have gone along with the flagging, with the second look, all the stuff that came out of Tailhook. This goes back to defending the culture. There should have been a point where the senior leadership should have said, " in all due respect to the, for the Constitutional rights of the Congress, this is beyond the authority of the Congress in terms of separation of powers. We will not go along with it. Find somebody else to go along with it." The great leaders in the American military have always done that.


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