brucekluger.com

    The Chicago Sun-Times, January 18, 2007

    Daily controversy: A blonde bombshell
    The Naked Truth: Air Force is picking the wrong battle over photos of its
    sexy drill sergeant, says a former editor of Playboy

    By Bruce Kluger


    And you thought the Abu Ghraib
    photos were shocking.

    Last week, Staff Sergeant
    Michelle Manhart of Lackland Air
    Force Base in Texas debuted in
    the pages of Playboy magazine.
    Posing withfellow soldiers, free
    weights and assault weapons—
    and, in other shots, wearing little
    more than her dog tags—the 30-year-old drill sergeant appears as cozy in a softly
    lit boudoir setting as she does marching flyboys around the tarmac.

    According to the text, she's also a devoted American. "I'm just so proud to serve my
    country," she tells Playboy.

    Unfortunately for Manhart, the Air Force's top brass wasn't exactly titillated.

    "This staff sergeant's alleged action does not meet the high standards we expect of
    our airmen," said a spokesman for Lackland AFB, "nor does it comply with the Air
    Force's core values of integrity, service before self, and excellence in all we do."

    Manhart was immediately demoted to a desk job, and now faces a possible
    discharge pending an "investigation."

    I was an editor of Playboy for 13 years, and during that time I witnessed this very
    same cultural burlesque so often it almost became boring: Woman with high-profile
    job poses in Playboy; employer goes bananas and fires her; model becomes martyr
    for girlie mags everywhere; Playboy sells out at newsstand. And all of this, of
    course, was always catnip for the media, especially during a slow news week.

    But that's just the point: We're not in a slow news week now—particularly where the
    military is concerned—and I find it curious that this bauble of a story has actually
    bubbled to the top of the Air Force's priority list. Talk about picking your wrong
    battles.

    A poll taken by the Military Times last month revealed that morale among American
    service men and women plummeted in 2006, with only 50 percent feeling optimistic
    about the war in Iraq (down from 83 percent in 2004). This comes at a moment in
    which the president has proposed marching an additional 20,000 troops into the
    quicksand of the Middle East, where soldiers already stationed are feeling
    overworked, undersupplied and in serious need of support from home.

    In other words, this is really not the time for military leaders to be publicly wagging
    their fingers at a dedicated soldier whose offense is, arguably, pretty damn
    harmless. Granted, Manhart's decision to doff her fatigues for Hugh Hefner's
    photographers is a peculiar way of expressing her patriotism, and we can only be
    grateful that not every member of the military has done likewise. (Picture Norman
    Schwarzkopf in a teddy. Yuck.)

    But the fact is, Manhart has served in the U.S. Air Force for more than a dozen
    years, part of that time in Kuwait. Her job at Lackland, one she's apparently good
    at, is to train recruits who are heading into battle—and, frankly, the Pentagon
    needs all the help it can get.

    Like most "scandals," Manhart's sacking is drenched in near-comic irony. For one
    thing, despite the Air Force's sudden case of the vapors over the sergeant's
    unauthorized tour in a nudie mag, Playboy continues a long and healthy
    relationship with military PXs around the world—a tradition that dates back to World
    War II grunts stashing pinups of Betty Grable in their footlockers.

    As for concern that Manhart's naked cheesecake dalliance might reflect badly on
    soldiers who prefer to keep their uniforms on, I'd say we have bigger fish to fry. For
    my (tax) money, I'd feel a lot more comfortable if the folks at Defense were
    investigating the repercussions of real scandals—like the Haditha massacre, or
    prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay—rather than one sergeant's impetuous
    furlough to Bunnyland.

    And what of the claim that new recruits at Lackland might find it difficult to take
    orders from a superior whom they've now seen stripped of her regulation...
    everything? One only need look at the pictures of Manhart in Playboy—the clothed
    ones, in which she's putting the rookies through their paces—to note that the lady
    can probably handle the fallout.

    Indeed, she already has. In a CNN interview on Friday, Manhart was asked about
    the prospect of basic trainees snickering at her commands and thinking salacious
    thoughts about her.

    "When I'm in my uniform, I'm all military, all discipline," Manhart replied. "Besides, if
    they were going to undress me with their eyes, they'd be doing that even if I hadn't
    appeared in Playboy."

Michelle Manhart, in and out of uniform. Photographs by Playboy.