I Am an Officer, But Not a Gentleman

The United States Naval Academy swearing-in event Class of 2020.
The United States Naval Academy holds the second swearing-in event for the Class of 2020. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Levingston Lewis)

Disclaimer: The views presented are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Defense Department or its components.

Small is not insignificant. Inconsequential is not obscure. Obstacles to success in life come in all sizes and levels of obscurity. Even a seemingly slight affront, while not a barrier or obstacle on its own, can be pieced together with a multitude of other affronts to amass a significant obstacle with consequential effects.

Historically, the most challenging obstacle for women serving in the military was changing the hearts and minds (i.e., attitudes) internal to the armed forces, all three branches of government, and the public at large. While silent elements of each group may still oppose women serving in some form -- or at all, such views are of a bygone era. Society has evolved and so too has the military when it comes to female service in the armed forces.

But despite the opening of all occupational fields to women, there are still reasons and excuses, as well as prevalent and oppressive "signs" of the past, that are an affront to the acknowledgment of women as equals in the U.S. military.

One "sign" left hanging, despite law and policy changes that allow women to serve, can be found in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ. A simple, yet significant, advancement would be to remove from Article 133 of the UCMJ the antiquated and superfluous "gentleman," an affront to those who want the meaning of an "officer" to stand for more.

I am an officer, not a gentleman.

Article 133 of the UCMJ, entitled Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and a Gentleman, traces its origins from the British Articles of War and the Articles of War of James II in 1688. It was based upon the English and European military systems of the 18th and 19th centuries, when officers were aristocratic "gentlemen" and ranked members of society.

Article 133 was first enacted in the United States when, in 1775, the Second Continental Congress established 69 Articles of War to govern the conduct of the Continental Army, and provided for the discharge of any officer convicted of "behaving in a scandalous, infamous manner, such as is unbecoming the character of an officer and a gentleman."

On April 10, 1806, the United States Congress enacted 101 Articles of War (which applied to both the Army and the Navy), and the Article was amended, removing the wording "scandalous, infamous." The military departments continued to operate under the Articles of War until May 31, 1951, when the first UCMJ went into effect, just three years after women were allowed to serve permanently in the military. Instead of removing "gentleman," Article 133 of the new UCMJ provided that "when applied to a female officer the term gentleman is the equivalent of gentlewoman." On Aug. 1, 1984, Article 133 removed references to "gentlewoman" in the discussion and instead redefined "gentleman" to "include both male and female commissioned officers, cadets, and midshipman."

Outside the context of the Article itself, the dictionary has historically defined "gentleman" as "a man of noble or gentle birth," and in its more modern usage as "a man whose conduct conforms to a high standard of propriety or correct behavior." Conversely, while a "gentlewoman" in the historical context is also referred to as a "woman of noble or gentle birth," the term's modern character reference describes a woman as one "with refined manners."

The definitions in themselves present both an outdated historical reference to nobility and a retro-gender construct that portrays a gentleman as someone with a "high standard … [of] behavior," a broader construct of character, and a gentlewoman as someone with purely "refined manners," a narrower example of a person who is merely polite and courteous.

The title of Article 133 alone is archaic in 2021. Yet deconstructing the text of the Article also reveals an anchor on the past with no purpose. First, as currently defined within the Manual for Courts-Martial, or MCM, "gentleman" is superfluous within the text of the statute and does not add context to the "conduct [that is] unbecoming" it is meant to discourage. The text of the statute states: "Any commissioned officer, cadet, or midshipman who is convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman shall be punished as a court-martial may direct."

If you superimpose the MCM's definition of "gentleman" into the text of the statute, it does not amplify the context of "conduct unbecoming." It instead attempts to unnecessarily differentiate between conduct that occurs in an official and unofficial capacity. An illustration of how the Article reads with the superimposed definition is as follows: "Any commissioned officer, cadet, or midshipman who is convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and ["personal character, regardless of gender"] shall be punished as a court-martial may direct."

The MCM explains that, regardless of whether the violative actions or behaviors took place in an official or personal capacity, there are "certain moral attributes common to the ideal officer and the perfect gentleman" that "seriously compromises that person's standing as an officer." If the capacity (i.e., official vs. personal) in which the conduct occurred is irrelevant and the purpose of the Article is to ensure officers maintain their standing as an officer with "certain moral attributes," then why make the distinction with an antiquated gender-based term? The superfluous term only diminishes the meaning of "officer." We are officers at all times and in every capacity.

Second, other than Article 133, nowhere in law or Defense Department policy is "gentleman" used to encompass or describe the personal character of a military officer, including the qualifications for appointment and promotion. The qualifications for appointment as a commissioned officer prescribe that an officer be "(1) a citizen of the United States; (2) able to complete 20 years of active commissioned service before his sixty-second birthday; (3) of good moral character; (4) physically qualified for active service; and (5) has such other special qualifications as the Secretary of the military department concerned may prescribe by regulation."

Written instructions to promotion selection boards are required to incorporate, and board members must certify, that officers recommended for promotion are "fully qualified and best qualified to meet the needs of the Military Service" consistent with exemplary conduct provisions that mandate an officer must "show in themselves a good example of virtue, honor, patriotism, and subordination."

When describing or defining the qualities of an officer, there is no law or DoD policy, other than Article 133, that makes reference to "gentleman" or makes a distinction that qualities that encompass good moral character are separate from the definition, and what is expected, of an officer.

Third, and finally, the term "gentleman" does have an apparent place in military customs and courtesies and yet, unlike Article 133, it has not been redefined to include both genders.

Military customs and courtesies dictate two or more male officers are addressed as "gentlemen;" two or more female officers are addressed as "ladies;" and a mixed group should be addressed as "ladies and gentlemen." The military has not redefined either one of these greetings to include both genders for convenience or simplicity, nor is it considered redundant to separately address or acknowledge both sexes. Certainly, if a person addressed a room of mixed company as "gentlemen," it would be considered disrespectful, dismissive or even sexist.

In a time in our history when military leaders are trying to reinforce that ethical and moral conduct is, and should be, synonymous with what it means to be an officer, why contradict that sentiment by insinuating that an officer and a "gentleman" are two distinct attributes? Likewise, why, when the DoD is still on the forefront of fully integrating women into all occupational positions of military service, would we disrespect or minimize their service by failing to address them properly, or worse, making them an addendum to the masculine form of a word?

The term "gentleman" is antiquated and superfluous to Article 133. Its historical depiction of an officer force made up of ranked male aristocrats has never been applicable in the United States. On its face, the term's masculine form excludes female officers. Its compound usage in the statute implies there are separate and distinct moral attributes of an officer and a "gentleman," when in fact its very definition in the MCM concludes there is no distinction -- officers must uphold "certain moral attributes" at all times in order to maintain their standing as an officer.

This is just one example of an antiquated relic of the past that may seem small and obscure to some but remains an affront to many. It is an affront to the meaning of, and all those serving as, an "officer." It is an affront to the objectives of the DoD to "remov[e] … [gender-based] barriers," but most importantly, it is an affront to the acknowledgment of women as equals in the U.S. military.

The solution is remarkably simple. There are many outstanding challenges to ensure women are serving on equal footing that require resources, time and money (i.e., female berthing on ships, equipment, etc.). Removing "gentleman" requires none of those things. Amending Article 133 is an easy, low-hanging opportunity to recognize the true makeup of the force and remove an outdated vestige of the past.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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