The lewd videos that cost a highly regarded Navy captain his command of an aircraft carrier on Tuesday afternoon have set off a raging debate in the past few days over the meaning and value of military discipline, leadership and revelry.
The officer, Capt. Owen Honors, was relieved of duty, a permanent loss of command that will likely end his career. His dismissal followed the release of a series of coarse and sexually graphic videos telecast once a week to the entire crew of the USS Enterprise in 2006 and 2007
The videos include simulated masturbation
, simulated anal exams (with a stick held by Captain Honors), and simulated sexual advances between two women in a shower. In between there's Captain Honors spewing obscenities, vulgarities, and anti-gay slurs. Most of the stuff is unprintable, not to say unviewable -- but, honestly, not all that shocking. (Certainly it's not as seriously offensive as the 1991 Tailhook officers' convention, during which 83 women and seven men were sexually assaulted.)
Sexual jokes and anti-minority slurs are part and parcel of adult comedy shows everywhere. Check into any backroom stand-up performance; or watch comedy DVDs over a round of longnecks or shots of Johnnie and Jack; or pick through the coarse jokes George Lopez peddles in his nightly TV show.
It's not so far from all that to Captain Honors and his "XO Movie Nights" on the Enterprise.
That doesn't let Captain Honors off the hook.
Without any regard for the highest moral values that military officers are expected to uphold, he broke barriers of taste and decency. Or, as the Navy put it in a statement on Tuesday afternoon, the Enterprise's skipper used "poor judgment."
It's true that American culture has changed over the decades. It has loosened up. It has become more sexually open and tolerant. But the Tailhook scandal, among others, exacted a price on the officer corps and on the reputation of the armed forces. Besides, sexual harassment and abuse have thankfully become unacceptable -- even as a joke.
Aware of all that, and having endured the embarrassment of Tailhook, the Navy could not let the Honors videos pass as just animal-house humor out at sea. Once the videos surfaced, the Navy had to move decisively. If anything, it didn't move fast enough.
Still, the removal of Captain Honors from his command is not likely to be the end of the story. The Navy is looking into the actions or inactions of other senior officers regarding the tapes -- who saw what when -- and more dismissals or reprimands are expected.
That raises the question, what took so long? The videos were aired on the Enterprise four years ago. According to Honors himself, speaking in one of the videos, he received several complaints about his show but tossed that off to "bleeding hearts."
Now his career is in shambles, but those "XO Movie Nights" linger on with his former shipmates.
"This is not offensive," said a sailor who enjoyed the videos. "It is important for morale." He wrote on a Facebook page
set up to record unofficial reaction from many former shipmates. By Monday night, 1,700 people had clicked "like" on the Facebook page, the New York Times reported Tuesday.
Though the videos have caught everyone's attention, the captain's anti-gay slurs cut more deeply, especially now, just weeks after the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the beginning of a new era of openness and tolerance in our armed forces.