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Saturday, March 06, 2010

Time for a change

Two days ago, the New York Times printed an op-ed on the subject of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, by retired General Merrill McPeak, who was Chief of Staff of the Air Force in the early 1990s when "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was implemented. It is such an embarrassment, and so wrong in so many ways, that I simply cannot avoid responding directly here--purely, of course, on my own behalf. (Just in case anyone is interested, I happen to be a lifelong and enthusiastic heterosexual.)

General McPeak obviously feels very strongly that gays should not serve in the military--so strongly that he is willing to repudiate important elements of the American political tradition, and to ignore a number of highly significant facts. The first and perhaps most appalling statement he makes concerns the relationship of soldiers to society at large. Taking the argument that service in the military is a right, he says:

"The second major argument for allowing openly gay service is that it’s a matter of civil rights, akin to racial integration. This view must rest on the notion that serving in the armed forces is a job like any other, and therefore civilian anti-discrimination laws should apply. While it may seem hopelessly idealistic, my view is that serving in uniform amounts to a calling, different in many ways from other jobs. (One of the ways is that your employer can order you to risk your life.)"

Actually, General, the military is not the only such job. Police and firefighters also make their livings risking their lives and now number numerous homosexuals, both male and female, within their ranks, apparently without destroying their effectiveness. Nor does the United States have the only military in the world, and homosexuals serve openly today in the armies of most advanced countries, even the army of that notoriously pacifistic, politically correct, wimpy nation, the state of Israel. He continues:

"But let’s limit ourselves to practical considerations. The services exclude, without challenge, many categories of prospective entrants. People cannot serve in uniform if they are too old or too young, too fat or too thin, too tall or too short, disabled, not sufficiently educated and so on. This, too, might be illegal in the civil sector. So why should exclusion of gay people rise to the status of a civil-rights issue, when denying entry to, say, unmarried individuals with sole custody of dependents under 18, does not?"

In my opinion there is nothing idealistic about the General's view of service as a calling which homosexuals simply could not have. He certainly ought to know that the list of notoriously gay great military leaders is a very long one, including Alexander the Great, Prince Eugene of Savoy (who led the Austrian Army in the 17th and early 18th centuries), and Frederick the Great of Prussia. The reason unmarried individuals with sole custody are denied entry is, of course, because their personal lives prevent them from serving. The same is not true of homosexuality, and many thousands of past and present soldiers, sailors, and yes, general, airmen, know it.

The military, the general says correctly, exists to fight, and he is still worried that allowing homosexuals to serve openly will destroy "unit cohesion." It does not bother him in the slightest that exactly the same argument was made against the racial integration of the armed forces for many years (of which more in a minute.) But it also doesn't bother him that the experience of many wars has proven that this is the reddest herring of all. The general does not seem to have done his research.

The most remarkable book about gays in the military was Conduct Unbecoming, an extraordinary piece of research published by the late journalist, Randy Shilts, shortly before his death in the 1990s. Although Shilts didn't have a Ph.D (and for the record, I never met him), he was one of the greatest historians in my generation (as shown also in his study of the emergence of the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On, and his death was a huge loss. Conduct Unbecoming drew on almost unbelievably broad research and presented a great deal of data on gays in the military from the 1940s until the early 1990s. Shilts spoke to veterans of the Second World War, of Korea, and of Vietnam. While the book was filled with harrowing stories of persecuted gay soldiers during peacetime, he did not find one, if I am not mistaken, who had ever suffered because of his homosexuality in a combat environment. The reason was, actually, obvious: there were simply far more important things to worry about in combat. In fact, two leading writers from the "greatest generation," James Jones and Norman Mailer, both wrote about casual gay sex in the Pacific during the Second World War, too. "The issue is whether and how the presence of openly declared homosexuals in the ranks affects the solidarity of the unit," McPeak wrote. The historical evidence has already answered that question with a resounding no. Congressional Republicans are now joining him in arguing that this is not the time to make this change because we have "two wars on our hands." In my opinion they could not be more wrong.

"Perhaps young American men and women will fight better when openly gay soldiers are included in the ranks," McPeak wrote, "though I’ve heard no one make this claim." General, let me be the first. As you must certainly know, the military has always drawn a lot of its strength from young men with something to prove--and who has more to prove about their bravery and ferocity than gay men? What the military needs most of all are capable recruits who really want to be there, and the current policy is making it more difficult for some very desirable people. The present policy has another major drawback that McPeak did not mention. It is far from unheard of for soldiers to escape from an unwelcome deployment by suddenly declaring themselves gay--a practice far more subversive to good order and discipline, in my opinion, than allowing gays openly to serve.

All this, I am quite sure, looks very different to today's recruits. (I have essentially no contact with enlisted personnel myself, but I've heard plenty from students.) When General McPeak and I were growing up (he must be in his seventies by now), no one knew who was gay. That meant everyone had to worry that some one might think they were, and indeed, that they might worry about themselves. That is now very different in much of the United States. Kids in high school are well aware of their gay classmates and are therefore less, not more, threatened by them.

I am sorry to have to say this, but some of General McPeak's comments are genuinely subversive, since they clearly contradict a fundamental principle of American government, the supremacy of civilian authority over military. To my amazement, he not only notes (quite correctly) that both the Army and Navy dragged their feet for years (indeed, in the Navy's case, for decades) before actually implementing President Truman's integration order, but seems to excuse it as a natural response, and to encourage today's military leadership to emulate it. "Thus allowing an openly gay presence in ranks will be very difficult until we have committed leadership for it. I certainly had trouble figuring out how to provide such leadership in 1993. While I believed all people are created equal, I did not believe such equality extended to all ideas or all cultures. And since I didn’t know how to advocate the assimilation of this particular form of diversity, I saw no way to prevent it from undermining unit cohesion." Back in 1993, when President Clinton had first put this issue on the table, most of my military colleagues did not appreciate it, but they repeatedly said that if openly gay service were ordered they would salute and respect it. It was the fault of President Clinton, not the Joint Chiefs, that things did not go further then. General McPeak makes clear that he regards the military world as both separate and morally superior to the civilian. In this historian's opinion, that is not, and never has been, the American way.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Kaiser:

It does seem that you are playing, yet again, fast and loose
with "alleged" European
historical facts.

I am talking about assertions -
apparently with undoubtable
certainty - that Alexander the Great, Prince Eugene of Savoy
(who led the Austrian Army in
the 17th and early 18th centuries),
and Frederick the Great of Prussia
were - according to you -
undoubtedly homosexuals.

Being from Macedonia, I am particularly taking the issue with
your statement of fact that
Alexander the Great was a homosexual. There is no such evidence in any of historical writings by his contemporaries.

Even in Lane Fox’s book, The Search for Alexander,
he clearly admits that no
contemporary historians mentioned anything on the matter.

If, there is a mention, and you know a source, I'd appreciate if you could share it.

Taking Oliver Stone's movie as a
source for a HISTORICAL FACT
should be insufficent for a
credible historian.

The verdict is also quite unsubstantiated in the case of the
other two military men.

If you wanted to strengthen your
argument by citing such examples, you would have been MUCH better
served by using Israeli Military where homosexuals can serve openly
and have done so for many years.

Anonymous said...

"..There are about 66,000 gay
men, lesbians and bisexuals in
the U.S. military, including
13,000 on active duty, according
to a study by the Williams
Institute at the University of
California at Los Angeles School
of Law.

A poll by Hamden, Connecticut-
based Quinnipiac University
released last month found 65
percent saying that ending the policy wouldn’t be divisive or
hurt combat effectiveness, while
30 percent disagreed. "



Anonymous said...

The gays-in-military issue is a "red herrring" in a sadder, more profound way than that of personal identity and civic rights or obligations.
It seems to be yet another divisive one that prevents older generals and politicians from understanding the demands of "new theater-less warfare" in the 21st century, brought on by a now-global terror network having no fixed address.
The Iraq War initial invasion in March 2002 was a triumph for the US military's "new look" of a thinned-down, rapid-response force. We won that batle quickly and decisively, but lost the post-war stabilization, 4000 American lives, and possibly several hundred thousand Iraqi non-combatant lives.
While Bush's "Surge" met with limited success, what was needed was 3 or 4 times as many "constabulatory" or police forces, and many more reconstruction forces, than combat forces. As in Vietnam, we won most batles, but lost or are in danger of losing, the overall campaign.
Philip Bobbit's book, "Terror and Consent", (Knopf, 2008), brilliantly summarizes the "new, stateless war" strategies needed now. And it may require a new kind of conscription of ALL able-bodied persons 18-21 for a new national service in which military service, constabulatory and reconstruction services are equally important as combat service.
Liberal fears of us becoming a "militarist state" to the contrary, it may be our only hope to remain a society free from domination by global terrorists who subvert "failed states" into providing nuclear weapons.

Unknown said...

Here's a link that explains the cost, even to the most hawkish among us, of discharging soldiers because they have a "different" sexual orientation:


There have always been homosexuals in the world, and there always will be. There also have always been homophobics who, I believe, are afraid of their own homosexual tendencies.

Anonymous said...

My experience with homosexuals consists of two events: a discussion with an oversexed male with female attributes and a roadside event with an oversexed macho male. I have a sister-in-law who has had her life threatened by homosexual thugs and I notice the hate emanating from the LGBT community in California over Proposition 8. Give me a good reason not to be a homophobe. Their activity is a perversion from normal human sexual activity and also from the moral concept of a human being as one having the ability to control his/her emotions. If there are homosexuals who can control their own sexual impulses and want to serve in the military the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy is their only hope. The other sorts mentioned above should not even be considered for military duty.reemona

David Kaiser said...

Rather than remove that last comment, I'm going to comment on one part of it myself. The poster states:

"Their activity is a perversion from normal human sexual activity and also from the moral concept of a human being as one having the ability to control his/her emotions."

I am fascinated to see, in black and white and on my own blog no less, the idea that of course WE ALL would like to commit homosexual acts, but most of us have enough self control not to do so. No. Most of us don't want to do so. It's no accident that some of the most violently homophobic fundamentalists have turned to have gay impulses themselves--they were driven to an obsession with sin because of those impulses. The vast majority of the population that knows that it wants to have sex only with the opposite one has nothing to fear from homosexuals. (And incidentally, the vast majority of thugs, like the vast majority of child molesters, are heterosexuals.)

As for the first comment, I knew Alexander the Great was gay (or bisexual) long before I had ever heard of Oliver Stone. He killed one of his own generals in a lovers' quarrel.

Chuck Connors said...

Currently the United States is teetering on the edge of the abyss--financially, socially, and politically. It will only take one extra straw on the proverbial camel's back (China attempting to sell off the U.S. debt it owns?)to bring down the whole edifice. The resulting chaos will most certainly influence the government (causes, conditions, occasions) to use the military to 'crack down' on the civilian population in the ensuing social unrest. If allowing openly homosexual personnel in the United States military and the almost certain unit disintegration it will highly likely cause, let the beginning of the interregnum begin. It is past time to restore the Constitution to the Founder's documented intent. Will you survive? Will your opinions? I and others will restore the "document" to it's rightful place in our republic.

Anonymous said...

Ben Nelson: 'Premature' to say whether 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy should end


Seth C. Burgess said...

Dr. Kaiser, thank you for writing this article. I am currently a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, 26 years old and married.

In my opinion, the "Dont' Ask, Don't Tell" policy is not compatible with our country today. Nor is it in the best interest of our country or our military. I have a strong belief in allowing all Americans who are qualified and wishing to serve their nation in uniform to be able to do so.

In my opinion there will be challenges in making this change, however with good leadership we will overcome such obstacles. The U.S. Military is in the people business. We are such a proud melting pot of folks of different backgrounds. With gays and lesbians as a recognized demographic today, it does not follow to continue to bar my fellow able-bodied Americans of whichever sexual orientation to serve.

Again, I am heterosexual myself and have a difficult time understanding the homosexual orientation. However, from my perspective as an Army leader I absolutely want to lead those who want to be in uniform, who want to serve their country, and who are just as able as anyone else to act professional while on the job and in uniform. I do not believe that homosexuality jeopardizes the ability to be a professional and effective Soldier.

Unknown said...

Dear Seth, thank you for speaking out. Your post is eloquent and it's good to hear a viewpoint from someone within the military on this subject. Thank you for your service to the people of the USA. Good luck in all you do.

Ronit said...

Prof. Kaiser - thanks for the post. It sparked some discussion on EphBlog:


Dan Vukmanich said...

Allow me to "play devil's advocate", and put the desired change in the DADT law into practice in our military operations in Asia.

When I served on active duty 1982-1992, everywhere I went we had alcohol available for consumption. On Okinawa, the Marine Corps installed beer vending machines in our barracks. On joint field exercises in Canada, the Canadian Army set up a bar in a tent in our encampment. Today, I have a friend in Afghanistan, a Marine SSGT, who implores me never to send any alcohol, because even one can of beer in that country will get him into big trouble.

Now, you want to change the current law to allow "gays", who currently may serve in the Armed Forces in any capacity as his "straight" colleague, as long as he keeps his "gayness" to only himself. If you change the law to mandate that the military allow open "gayness", the only option the U.S. Armed Forces will have will be to ban "gays" from going into the theater of combat, all of S. Asia and Middle East, for the same reason that they have banned beer. (Bad reasons, in my opinion)

Do not think for a second that commanders in theater will be able to set local rules to bar any kind of "romantic" touching between men. The law that would make DADT illegal would make any such "rules" illegal as well. I know from my own personal experience that the Marine Corps is very diligent in following the Rule of Law.

Therefore, in practice, you will have succeeded in granting "gays" a "right" to U.S. Military pay and benefits (which they currently have), but with the added exemption from being sent into South Asia. How does this help "gays" who want to fight for their country (which I applaud)? How does this help our Armed Forces in their most critical mission?

Anonymous said...

Your blogs are very interesting!
I have always enjoyed reading and debating on any topic related to homosexuality. I am straight, married and a Christian. I have friends that are gay...the same way I have friends that are sinners. I've never understood how anyone can condemn one thing so highly, while they're judging other people in the same breath!

Why should it matter if, to put it in elementary school language, "you like boys or girls"? Everyone adult that is of sound mind and body should have the opporunity to fight for their country. America used to pride itself on how diverse it was...Why hide sexual orientation?

Bozon said...

I just read the interview

"What's Wrong with the New History: An Interview with David Kaiser"

What a wonderful assessment it was.
I would wish that everyone with an interest in these matters to consult it too.

All the best,

Bozon said...

Having gay people in the military seems necessary. However.

With an already fragmented society, it just adds another layer of difficulty, though.

My experience, of nonmilitary gay people in positions of government power, has not been the best, however, to say the least.

I am also aware of the classic examples of, say, Alexander, or Frederich.

Modern societal interest groups, including gay ones, tend to be more 'special interest' focussed than say classical, or enlightenment, authority figures, I fear.

Modern gay authority figures, most of whom have, til now, hidden their preference in order to obtain office, may differ markedly from straight ones, or from the classical, or enlightenment, gay monarch ones as well, once in power.

Fortunately, modern internet information makes hiding such things increasingly prohibitively difficult.