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.