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Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Looking back on my Navy career: From the Tailhook scandal to Marines United

It has taken less than a month for the “Marines United” revenge porn story to fade.




By Commander Michele Poole, U.S. Navy
Best Defense guest columnist

It has taken less than a month for the “Marines United” revenge porn story to fade. For something that was described as “the scandal that is engulfing the military,” it doesn’t seem to have had much staying power. Absent congressional attention, it would have likely received little attention in first place. After all, it was first reported in August 2014 by Task and Purpose, as “The Sexist Facebook Movement the Marine Corps Can’t Stop.”

I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about it over the past month, ironically Women’s History Month. Coincidentally, I find myself in a natural period of reflection, with retirement orders in hand and plans in place for my future civilian life. While on balance, I’m satisfied with how I’ve spent the last 26 years of my life, it’s hard to not feel deeply disappointed and weary to be dealing with the same sorts of issues that colored my first year of naval service.

Just two months into my plebe year at the Naval Academy, dozens of women and a few men were sexually assaulted and harassed by dozens of their fellow Navy and Marine Corps officers at the Tailhook convention in Las Vegas. The ensuing investigation revealed that senior Navy leaders were present at the convention, and were accused of being aware of what was going on and doing nothing to stop it. The behavior was so egregious, and the investigation following so sweeping and contentious that “Tailhook” has become synonymous with “scandal” in the Navy lexicon.

The Marines United scandal appears to be unfolding in ways reminiscent of Tailhook. First came shock expressed by senior leadership that this sort of behavior is going on. This feigned surprise should be met with incredulity. Like Tailhook, where the same behavior had been going on for years, the behavior revealed by Marines United has been going on and reported publicly for years. As soon as one site is shut down, others immediately take its place. Those who reported violators have been threatened with violence, and a not insignificant number of veterans and service members think this behavior is perfectly fine.

The next step is to blame the victims. Women at Tailhook should have known what they were getting into, just like women whose pictures were shared without their permission should have known better not to have taken them in the first place. It doesn’t matter that in many cases photos were taken surreptitiously while members put out hit lists for others to abuse, suborning gross invasions of privacy and personal dignity.

Another form of victim blaming is centered around the view that women don’t belong. It used to be argued that women don’t belong in the military. Now the argument is about ground combat specialties, so you might say some small progress has been made. As women have more opportunities to prove themselves and old dinosaurs are put out to pasture, this attitude should eventually fade too, but we can’t allow it to be passed down, and we can’t permit women to be harassed by those who think women are worth less than men, or merely serve as objects for their sexual gratification and juvenile expressions of ridicule and hatred.

Much like Tailhook was blamed on the environment of the Tailhook convention, Marines United is being blamed on the phenomenon of social media. Certainly, social media provides an environment of anonymity and perceived impunity, and groups like Marines United bring out the worst sort of mob behavior; however, social media is simply a venue for this predatory behavior, not the cause of it. Make no mistake, this is learned behavior that did not start with Facebook or Reddit.

In a New York Times article, former Marine Alexander McCoy describes his 2008 boot camp experience where, “Every interaction I had with female Marines in basic training, and every reference to them, seemed intended to foster contempt.” McCoy describes a “drill-instructor-approved bulletin board where recruits posted photos of girlfriends who broke up with them during training. The unspoken, but clearly understood, rule was that the raunchier these photos were, the better.” McCoy concludes that the Marines United scandal “is the result of tolerating a culture where female Marines are treated with contempt, defined solely as sexual objects unworthy of the job and as distractions to the men.”

I’m weary to my bones that we still face this problem, but my disappointment stems from the responses of our leaders. Their instincts generally seem right, but their actions have been far from adequate. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert Neller, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, “To the men in our Corps… I need you to ask yourselves, ‘How much more do the females of our Corps have to do to be accepted?’ Was it enough when Major Megan McClung was killed by an IED in Ramadi, or Captain Jennifer Harris was killed when her helicopter was shot down while she was flying blood from Baghdad to Fallujah Surgical? …What is it going to take for you to accept these Marines as Marines?”

The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, sent a “Personal For” message to all Commanders and Commanding Officers, titled “No Bystanders.” He wrote, “Team, we have a problem and we need to solve it. Really solve it, not put a Band-Aid on it, not whitewash over it, not look the other way…. Despite a steady effort to get after this, we’re not making progress.” He continued, “I’ve heard hundreds of times that ‘these actions are being taken by only a small minority.’ Prove that. If that’s true, then the vast majority of men and women need to stand up and smother this behavior. To become intolerant. To act to put a stop to this. And if you’re one of that minority that just won’t get it, then it’s time for you to leave the Navy.” I was cheering inside as I read these words.

It immediately reminded me of a video that went viral about four years ago, when Lieutenant General David Morrison, then Australia’s Chief of Army, was dealing with a similar scandal in his service. At the time, I remember enviously wondering why couldn’t we have such leaders in our military. But the fundamental difference between General Morrison and Admiral Richardson, is that General Morrison spoke to every individual in his service directly, whereas Admiral Richardson’s message went through his Commanders. The only reason I have seen it is that my Commander forwarded it to everyone in our command. Some excerpts are quoted in Navy Times, but if you go to the website where all Navy “NAVADMIN” messages are posted, this one remains “Not Available.”

The only message the CNO has sent to every member of the Navy is guidance for “Social Media Conduct.” It’s a horrible title — the message is more general than social media conduct, and it is on the right track. He encourages Sailors not to be bystanders, and tells them a half-dozen different ways to report toxic behavior, but it fundamentally lacks what I think is the most important element in the CNO’s message to his Commanders, and that is: If you can’t get onboard, you should get out.

That was also the fundamental take-away in General Morrison’s message. “Those who think that it is ok to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues have no place in this Army. Our service has been engaged in continuous operations since 1999 and in its longest war ever in Afghanistan. On all operations female soldiers and officers have proven themselves worthy of the best traditions of the Australian Army. They are vital to us maintaining our capability, now and into the future. If that does not suit you, then get out…. Every one of us is responsible for the culture and reputation of our Army and the environment in which we work. If you become aware of any individual degrading another, then show moral courage and take a stand against it…. I will be ruthless in ridding the Army of people who cannot live up to its values, and I need every one of you to support me in achieving this. The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept. That goes for all of us, but especially those who, by their rank, have a leadership role. If we are a great national institution, if we care about the legacy left to us by those who have served before us. If we care about the legacy we leave… then it is up to us to make a difference. If you are not up to it, find something else to do with your life. There is no place for you amongst this band of brothers and sisters.”

We deserve a similar message, one that includes all four service chiefs and senior enlisted leaders, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, demonstrating the entirety of the Department of Defense leadership is finally taking this problem seriously, and setting a common and clear standard for the entire force.

Now is not the time for excuses about how difficult it is to find the right criminal statute to prosecute. Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice gives Commanders enormous latitude to hold service members accountable for behavior that undermines the “good order and discipline in the armed forces,” and brings “discredit upon the armed forces.” Senior leaders of both the Navy and Marine Corps have stated explicitly that the social media harassment is “embarrassing to our Corps” and “undermine[s] teamwork and make[s] us less capable.”

Simply put, we need to see these violators, and others like them, held accountable for their actions in order to justify our continued trust in our leadership. My career has been book-ended by Tailhook and Marines United, and somewhere along the way I lost faith in my leadership to do the right thing. Words are no longer enough to earn it back. It is time for leaders at all levels to demonstrate their commitment to the team.

Commander Michele Poole is a surface warfare officer currently serving in the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the Naval War College. The views presented are those of the author, and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or its components.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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