Laura Cannon is a 2001 West Point graduate and a veteran of the Iraq War. I thank her for her service, but she’s written an obnoxious op-ed in the Washington Post — shaped, it seems, from her in-progress memoir War Virgin, about sex in military life. Here’s a flavor:
West Point is long on molding military officers, but a bit short on humanity. Its mission statement stresses the intent to commit every graduate to a career of professional excellence and service, embodying the values of “duty, honor and country.” How does West Point do that?
Here’s how: Rules! Hundreds upon hundreds of rules that govern every facet of human conduct imaginable, including my favorite: no sex in the barracks.
Yes, to become a leader of character and serve my country well, it is imperative that I not have sex in my college bedroom.
Does West Point succeed in stifling one of the most basic of human urges? What about cadet couples who are in love and will one day get married and have families? Does the threat of punishment — namely having to spend a weekend dressed in full parade regalia, marching with a heavy rifle, back-and-forth in a confined area — deter them?
Not so much.
Cannon criticizes both West Point’s sexual proscriptions and General Order 1, which prohibits sex on combat deployments, as unfair and unnatural (“covert combat sex . . . ranks high on the list of life’s thrills”), and says that if she were in charge, she’d do away with both while “keep[ing] the rules that protect soldiers from sexual harassment”, naturally.
There is much annoying about this. For one thing, I’m not sure why I should be bothered that the United States Military Academy prioritizes “molding military officers” toward “a career of professional excellence and service” over “humanity”. That sounds about right to me. For another, I get that the ladies’ barracks at West Point were Ms. Cannon’s “college dorm room”, but they weren’t her college dorm room, know what I mean? I doubt Cannon spent a lot of time sitting around listening to Dave Matthews, sipping Keystone Light with a bunch of communications majors, and wondering whether the colors you see are the same as the ones I see, either. She didn’t go to Arizona State, folks. And considering the application process to West Point takes about two years of extraordinarily hard mental and physical work, not to mention a nomination from a member of Congress, I doubt she was under any misconceptions about exactly what she was signing up for.
But there’s something else going on here that’s endemic in not just the liberal, but increasingly the American, worldview, and its a misunderstanding about how laws — about how the “hundreds of rules that govern every facet of human conduct imaginable” — are supposed to figure into personal decision-making.
Speed limits and traffic fines don’t eliminate speeding, and they aren’t supposed to. They’re supposed to reduce it to manageable levels. It’s doubtful that any set of laws would completely eliminate speeding, but if you wanted to come a lot closer to total abolition, you could probably do so by setting the punishment at say, castration or ten years in prison. We can similarly assume that if the Army were interested in more thoroughly limiting sexual activity at West Point, the punishment wouldn’t be a weekend of forced march, but a trip to the brig, or expulsion. Same goes for deployment (indeed, a bit of Googling shows me a general in Northern Iraq made pregnancy a court-martial offense, for both the pregnant and the impregnator).
#more#The severity of punishment for infraction x generally tells you a lot about how much of infraction x the powers-that-be are willing to tolerate. And “tolerate” is ambiguous enough to accommodate a variety of normative attitudes toward the infraction in question. As a society we “tolerate” a certain level of theft by not executing people for robbing banks, and we likewise “tolerate” a certain level of speeding by not executing people for speeding. But in the former case, our toleration is more akin to “living with,” whereas in the latter, it’s more honest to say that our interest is in reducing speeding in the aggregate, while keeping the penalties low enough to allow for those instances when — let’s face it — we all know it’s perfectly okay to speed. And indeed, there are certain extreme circumstances in which most of us think it’s okay to steal*, or even to kill, too, whether or not those instances are covered by a given law.
The point is that even in laws without explicit exceptions, there is always wiggle room. And that that’s often a feature, not a bug, of laws as such.
This is what’s so weird about Cannon’s post. West Point’s sexual proscriptions unarguably play some role in limiting the extent to which fraternizing interferes with duty. And it’s fair to assume that the leadership there has set up sanctions they think will reduce infractions to a level that’s “tolerable” in either, or both, senses given above. But to read Cannon it’s as if she thinks she’s the only horny cadet who ever thought the rules were a personal injustice and a drag on her social life. But of course she isn’t. Generations of cadets have thought much the same, and they did something about it. Namely, they broke the rules and got it on. But the smart, honest ones did it discreetly and opportunistically, using the wiggle room provided by the girdle of the rules, calculating cost and benefit, and prepared to march if they got caught. In other words, they subscribed to that great Spanish proverb: “Take what you want, and pay for it.”
Rules have been slyly and selectively broken for as long as there have been rules. But Cannon, like so many Americans these days, seems to believe that no rule worth breaking is a rule worth having in the first place. They hold a view that’s corollary to the liberal caricature that “everything permissible is mandatory.” Namely, that everything whisperable is shoutable.
This is foolish. There are plenty of rules we occasionally break but which we’re grateful we have. And plenty of things we do discreetly that we’d never do flagrantly. I’d tell you what they are, but that’s sort of the point of this post.
* Though this is surely a slippery slope. I’m reminded of Bart Simpson’s conversation with the gangster Fat Tony:
Bart: “Uh, say, are you guys crooks?”
Fat Tony: “Bart, um, is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?”
Fat Tony: “Well suppose you got a large starving family. Is it wrong to steal a truckload of bread to feed them?”
Fat Tony: “And, what if your family don’t like bread, they like cigarettes?”
Bart: “I guess that’s okay.”
Fat Tony: “Now, what if instead of giving them away, you sold them at a price that was practically giving them away. Would that be a crime Bart?”
Bart: “Hell no!”