I’ve been struggling with how to say this, but there’s just no civil way to put it. Uncle Sam is a hypocritical, chauvinist pig.

That, I think, is the moral of Michelle Manhart’s story. Last month, Manhart, a U.S. Air Force drill sergeant and 30-year-old mother of two, was demoted to senior airman and removed from active duty at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Her crime: posing in the February 2007 issue of Playboy.

Under the caption of “Tough Love,” Manhart appeared in a six-page spread, shouting orders and holding weapons, in and out of uniform and sometimes totally nude.According to newspaper and wire service reports, Manhart believes the Air Force’s decision was based on her having appeared in the magazine in military dress, not out of it – the implication perhaps being that she somehow disgraced the uniform by associating it with sexuality. “I’m disappointed with our system,” she said.


Lackland Air Force Base spokesperson Oscar Balladares told reporters that Manhart’s appearance in Playboy “does not meet the high standards we expect of our airmen, nor does it comply with the Air Force’s core values of integrity, service before self, and excellence in all we do.”

I just have two questions. How many copies of the February 2007 issue of Playboy were delivered to military personnel at Lackland Air Force Base and to American military bases around the world? And, speaking of “service before self,” how many military personnel have serviced themselves utilizing Playboy photos of Manhart?

Oh, my mistake. All those soldiers just subscribe to Playboy and Hustler and Penthouse for the excellent editorial coverage, right?

Before the Air Force higher-ups put on white gloves, shouldn’t they come clean? If posing for Playboy is behavior unbecoming to military personnel, then shouldn’t lasciviously ogling nude women in Playboy constitute behavior unbecoming to military personnel as well?

And this raises other issues. Don’t most overseas American military bases lie in conspicuous proximity to popular prostitution industries? Isn’t it common knowledge that male military personnel often while away significant stretches of R & R in strip joints, exotic dance clubs, and brothels? Is the integrity of these men questioned? Are they demoted for their lechery – or are servicemen who frequent foreign whorehouses upholding the military’s “core values of integrity?”

Indulging in the skin trade has long been a traditional military rite of passage – so much so that the prostitution trade surrounding American air bases in Thailand during the Vietnam war helped create the prostitution industry so rampant in that country today. Are male soldiers, sailors, and airmen even discouraged by their superiors from sampling local brothels?

I’m not a fan of Playboy. I think it’s lame and silly, and I wouldn’t want my wife or daughter posing for the masculine legions (military or civilian) that gape through it every month. But Manhart is a responsible adult. And nothing she could do in Playboy could make the morale of our military forces any worse than it already is. Truth be told, couldn’t Manhart’s appearance in a nudie mag actually, well, stiffen their resolve?

During the 1991 invasion of Iraq, top U.S. General Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf called Playboy’s “Operation Playmate” a “major morale boost” for the troops, lauding the publication for its war efforts. “Operation Playmate” encouraged male GI’s to write to their favorite centerfolds who in turn sent admiring troops autographed photos of themselves in bathing suits or halter tops.

Does the Air Force realize that Playboy re-launched “Operation Playmate” in 2003? Does the Air Force condone the fact that GIs are soliciting the attention of Playboy playmates as we speak?

Not that posing in or perusing the pages of skin mags is the military’s worst personnel problem – not even close.

Uncle Sam recently relaxed the high standards he for years demanded in terms of military recruitment. According to news reports, the Army is now accepting twice as many recruits with felonies and serious misdemeanors on their records as it did in 2003. And American armed forces in general are now increasingly faced with the necessity of accepting less than desirable recruits to maintain the human element of this nation’s military industrial complex and keep it chugging right along.

Moreover, the Hartford Courant recently won a major award for an investigative report revealing that mentally unfit troops are more and more often being kept in or re-deployed to war zones and offered powerful drugs to keep their instability under control – while receiving little or no counseling.

Clearly, Uncle Sam has bigger problems than Michelle Manhart taking her camos off in Playboy. But I guess when he says “I Want You,” he’s more often referring to horny male felons and the mentally unstable, not to bold, exhibitionist women.

E.R. Bills is a Fort Worth-based freelance writer.