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Friday, March 26, 2010

A new stage--and a new civil war

[I must apologize, to begin with, for accidentally deleting two comments that were posted during the last few days. I am checking in every 48 hours or so to moderate, and this time I deleted them all when I thought I was deleting only one, which appeared to be random spam. Feel free to repost.]

With the speed of a great battle, to continue the metaphor that I relied upon last week, the passage of the Health Care bill has transformed the political landscape. After stumbling about like the Union Army for about a year, the Democratic majority actually passed the first major piece of progressive legislation in almost 40 years. (The last such legislation, including the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, passed, ironically, under Richard Nixon.) The Republicans, having staked everything on the defeat of the bill, are temporarily in disarray. On Friday President Obama announced agreement on a new arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union, showing progress on one of his signature foreign policy issues. Freed of the endless burden of the health care bill, the Administration is moving forward on mortgage relief. Many Democrats now face difficult campaigns, but so do many Republicans--even in primaries.

The long-term threat to the Administration remains the economy, and the commitment of its economic team to a monetarist model. Wall Street is booming once again thanks to a combination of bailouts and near-zero interest rates at the Fed. Once again our financial markets resemble a Monopoly game in which all the players periodically show higher balance sheets because of regular infusions of free cash. I am beginning to believe that this will lead, within several years, to a crash. The Federal Reserve, created in 1913-14 to put an end to the irresponsible excesses of thousands of private banks--the banks that had made panics a regular feature of American life from the 1870s through the 1910s--now seems to be playing the same role that they did. Exactly when the next crash happens, and how the party in power (probably the Obama Administration) reacts to it, will have enormous economic and political consequences

Meanwhile, we are two nations to an extent not seen since the era of the Civil War. How bad things are getting in the red states was just brought home to me by the following anecdote, which took place in a rural area of the old Confederacy. I cannot tell you exactly how it came to my attention and I am changing some details because the family involved has decided, for obvious reasons, that they do not want national or even local publicity; but I have been in personal touch with the mother involved and I have no doubt that the story is true. Here is the gist.

On Monday, a fifth grade boy went to his science class in public school. Okay, folks, I really need to vent. Today an incident happened to my 5th grader at school. The teacher asked the class to raise their hand if their parents supported the new health care bill. This particular boy was the only one to raise his hand. It turns out that his father is a Republican and his mother a Democrat--not an uncommon situation in that part of the world. The teacher then began ranting about the health care bill while other students taunted the boy, pointing at him and shouting "Democrat!", and, in one case, throwing an eraser at him. The teacher told the students that they would not be able to get in to see the doctor because "poor" people would take their children to the doctor every time they coughed. Only slackers
who didn't want to work would, she said, benefit would from the health care bill. To her credit, the mother explained to her son that the actual beneficiaries would be employees at Walmart, the IHOP, and McDonald's, and other low-paid workers. When the mother heard about this she immediately wrote a letter to the teacher, principal, and assistant principal, and complained to the local superintendent.

The next day the boy showed physical symptoms of stress, and his mother sought legal advice. The first attorney she reached said the complaints he customarily received from parents concerned the "leftist agenda" in the schools. A second was more sympathetic but said that there was no basis for a lawsuit. Later than day the principal called, apologized, and said the teacher had been advised not to discuss politics in the classroom, but not reprimanded in any way. The mother has not attempted to contact any local representatives, all of whom are Republicans. The state ACLU, which does not take phone calls, indicates on its web site that it only handles discrimination based on protected categories, of which being a Democrat is not one.

Yet another day later the principal called again. The teacher, he reported, continued to deny what had happened, but had also begun crying in the principal's office for having caused so much trouble, and because, she said, she was very fond of the student in question. The teacher turned out to be 24, in her first year of teaching. In another conversation, the mother convinced the teacher that the social studies class might discuss the incident while studying the civil rights movement, as they are scheduled to do. The family realizes that this story could draw a lot of local, regional or national publicity, but they do not want it, and I don't blame them.

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the boy was treated about the way that a Unionist would have been treated in many public schools in the South in 1861--if there had been public schools in that part of the South. This brought home again to me the tragedy of the last half century of Southern history. When the black population was firmly held down by segregation--from around 1890 to 1965--the white people actually fought over economic issues, and southern politics produced men like Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, Huey Long (a true populist, if also a demagogue), Hugo Black, John Sparkman and Lister Hill of Alabama (two liberal New Dealers), and Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore, Sr., of Tennessee. But from what I can see, the reopening of race as the key issue in southern politics in the 1960s wrecked southern liberalism beyond repair. Public services became inextricably associated, apparently, with helping black people. FDR became a saint by saving the poor people of the South from starvation; Barack Obama is being savaged all over the region for trying to give them health care. I continue to believe that too many of the people, black and white, who might have arrested this trend, have left the region.

It is quite possible that the election of Barack Obama has not actually changed the political views of the inhabitants of this particularly locality, but simply made them more virulent. The election in the fall will be decided in swing communities of which this is obviously not one. The Tea Party movement and the Republicans who are allying with it are counting, in my opinion, on this kind of resentment. It will be catastrophic if they succeed, but inspiring if they fail.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The First Great Battle

Clausewitz wrote that war is politics by other means, and Mao Zedong added the corollary that politics is war without bloodshed. That is the only way to understand the events taking place this weekend on the floor of the House of Representatives, and it would be just as rash for me to predict the outcome of tomorrow's House vote as it would to have bet on the outcome of the coming battle in Pennsylvania on June 30, 1863. To paraphrase Lincoln, now we are in the midst of a lesser civil war, to determine what form our nation shall assume for the next eighty years. Both sides are rallying their troops with language as extreme as ever used by any general on the eve of battle. Both sides feel, once again, that their way of life is at stake. Certainly I would agree that much of this seems exaggerated, and so it must seem to foreign observers--but so did the conflict of 1861-5.

Having spent much of the last two weeks preparing and delivering a lecture involving the civil war, with a long seminar yet to come, I am increasingly convinced that the 1860s, rather than the 1930s, provide the best parallel to what is happening in the United States today. The lecture focused on Lincoln and most of my reading has dealt with the Northern side, and many depressing parallels occurred to me. The Republicans in Congress were every bit as selfish, irresponsible and disunited as today's Democrats. Today every politician seems to have a favorite earmark, but in those days every leading Senator and Congressman had a favorite general, and Lincoln, the commander-in-chief, had to take their views into account--surely a more humiliating procedure even than anything President Obama has had to submit to. Just as the Ben Nelsons and Mike Stupaks of the Congress have put disastrous measures into the health care bill, political generals like John C. Fremont and Ben Butler helped prolong the war and cost thousands of lives. Lincoln had to stick with George McClellan, who could never have won the war, because he had initially helped build him up as the savior of the Union and had no idea who else might be better. It was no accident that Grant and Sherman began their careers in the West, further from the scrutiny of Washington, where they could (barely) survive a mistake or two. I would like to believe that the true leaders of the current crisis might emerge from state governments, but I am not aware of a single governor who is making an inspiring record right now.

The parallel with the 1860s obviously extends to the other side--indeed it is becoming clearer every day, as Republicans begin to talk about rolling back not only the New Deal, but the results of the Civil War itself insofar as they concern the powers of the federal government. They are political as well. Like Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln did not represent the extreme of his political party. On the way to the White House he denied repeatedly and sincerely that he was an abolitionist, although he expressed hopes that slavery would finally disappear. In the same way, while Barack Obama said a number of times during the 00s that he would prefer a single-payer health care system, he is making no attempt to implement one. Yet today's Republicans, like Southern Democrats in 1860, reacted to his election as though he were the Antichrist himself. Substitute "abolitionist" for "socialist" in today's attacks on Obama and you will have the flavor of 1860-1. Just as Rush Limbaugh thunders daily that Obama is determined to destroy the private sector, Southerners proclaimed that they would be the slaves of black men within a few years if they tried to live under Lincoln. States are once again claiming the right to nullify federal legislation (and a constitutional crisis looms, by the way, in the not impossible event that today's conservative Supreme Court majority might strike down the health care mandate in the bill if it passes.)

In the face of all this, the Democratic Party suffers from a problem that nearly wrecked the Northern high command in the early stages of the civil war: a lack of professionalism and discipline. (I am not accusing the common union soldier of indiscipline--he was never the problem--his leadership was.) This stems from the rather eerie and depressing similarity between the leading generations of those times and these, the Transcendentals (born about 1793-1820) and the Boomers. Not only were both addicted to apocalyptic visions of the future, but both seemed incapable of making the simplest compromises, even on their own side, in pursuit of the greater good. Their selfishness communicated itself to not a few of the younger Gilded generation. During the months when he personally held the destiny of the Army of the Potomac in his hands, General McClellan poured out a long stream of complaints about his commander-in-chief, Lincoln, and his fellow generals, in letters to his wife. There was no moment during the war so bleak that politicians would not try to turn it to their individual benefit. Fortunately the South did no better--in fact it may have done even worse--and that balanced things out sufficiently to allow the Union to win the war with the help of the genius of that most underrated of Americans, Ulysses S. Grant.

The same problems, however, eventually crippled Reconstruction. Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson, a man of modest capabilities and accomplishments, nonetheless felt himself entitled to go against the party that had put him into the nation's highest office, and did what he could to set back Reconstruction for four years. The Republican leadership--increasingly Gilded rather than Transcendental--became more focused on the enormous profits to be tapped from the new economy and less interested in the plight of the slaves. Deadlock and corruption ruled the entire American government for most of the next thirty years, and the black population of the South was terrorized into submission once again. That, at this point, frightens me more than anything. Even if the health care bill does pass, the Democratic Party has not shown itself capable of a sustained and determined effort to correct the flaws that have opened up in our society over the last thirty years.

It is increasingly clear that we are not about to see a replay of the New Deal, mainly, I think, for two reasons. First, as I have remarked here before, the crisis of 1929-32 was unique insofar as no one--no section of the country, and, initially, no social class or economic interest group--could deny that drastic action was necessary. Roosevelt in 1933 forward disposed not only of huge majorities in the Congress (much larger than Obama's now), but also of the enthusiastic cooperation, for at least a year, of the whole of the American people. That enabled him to do so much during the first two years that he actually gained seats again in 1934 (something that Lincoln could not do and that seems very unlikely for Obama now), and again in 1936. But in addition--as I have observed in my current research--the Missionary Generation had qualities that the Transcendentals and Boomers simply lack. Born in the wake of the destructive explosion of emotion that even now took more lives than every other American war combined, they were raised with self-discipline and a sense of broader responsibility. They also, as I have found again and again, had to show true administrative ability to rise to public eminence. That is why Roosevelt could put together a bipartisan team, including the Secretaries of War and of the Navy, to prepare for and fight the Second World War. Modern society has never been more disciplined than it was in the first half of the twentieth century. That made it capable both of unprecedented evil and unprecedented good. Fortunately for us, the good prevailed.

The stakes today are lower. We may indeed descend into another gilded age in which many millions of Americans live their whole lives in poverty, but even that would be better than living under totalitarian dictatorship, or fighting another disastrous civil war. Politically we do not live in an age of greatness. Yet that does not mean that we must not choose between better and worse alternatives, and I shall try to be watching when that choice is made, probably tomorrow afternoon.

P.S. With this post I announce a new policy. This blog is designed to provoke discussion and it is not supposed to be reserved for people who agree with me. I have had plenty of intellectual battles in my career and given ample proof that I can take it as well as dish it out. Anonymous, abusive comments, however, contribute nothing to resolving the problems we all face, and henceforth comments that are both anonymous and abusive will be deleted.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

More data on gays in the military

Those who followed my post on this subject two weeks ago will be very interested in the results of this poll of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan on the subject.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Presidents in Crisis

My job involves teaching courses that span the whole of modern history, and thus forces me to think about many different historical periods in rapid sequence. Just last week I was busy writing a lecture on Lincoln and Bismarck, comparing their political problems and strategy, while meanwhile, I continue, when possible, my research on Roosevelt in 1940-1. Thus I am continually learning more about the last two great crises of American life--and thinking, as I instinctively do, about how they compare to the one we are passing through.

Of the two the Civil War is in many ways more similar. Republicans reacted to President Obama's election in roughly the same way that southerners reacted to Lincoln's: as an unparalleled catastrophe, a threat to everything in which they held dear, which had to be resisted by any means and at all costs. We are fortunate, of course, that in today's context that simply meant total political obstructionism, rather than secession (although the latter has been mentioned by no less a figure than the Governor of Texas, among others.) But what is striking is how overblown both portraits of the two new Presidents has been. Lincoln was most definitely not an abolitionist, much less an advocate of equality between whites and freed blacks, when he became President. He was simply a free-soiler who was determined to restrict slavery to where it existed, confident, without much real reason, that it would wither and die on its own. Well into the war, and subsequent to the emancipation proclamation in late 1862, he hoped to see the freed slaves emigrate to Africa or somewhere in the Caribbean. But white southerners claimed nearly unanimously that his election meant an immediate threat of both abolition and the mixing of the races. Believing apparently that slavery was the only way the two races could live together, they assumed that if they were no longer masters they must be slaves. In the same way, Republicans a year ago immediately declared Barack Obama, a very moderate Democrat who so far has used mainstream methods to try to save capitalism and has bragged about having done so, was immediately labeled a socialist determined to destroy the free enterprise system. Ironically, had southern Democrats in 1861 used the strategy Republicans are pursuing today, slavery would surely have lasted much longer than it did. By staying in the union they could have made even the free soil program difficult, if not impossible, to implement, since it was not universally accepted even in the North, and it is hard to see how slavery would ever have been ended by purely Constitutional means.

Lincoln also faced the same kind of division within his own party--whether one defines it as the Republican Party or the whole North and border states. Relatively few Northerners wanted a war to abolish slavery in 1861, although the ones that did, such as Charles Sumner, were vocal indeed, far more so than today's proponents of single-payer health care. Lincoln had to find some other basis to carry on the war, and he did. He defined it not as a struggle to free the slaves, but as a fight to prove that a free government could survive. "Our popular Government has often been called an experiment," he told Congress on July 4, 1861 "Two points in it our people have already settled-the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains-its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets, and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections." This remained the cornerstone of his rhetoric throughout the conflict, climaxing in the Gettysburg Address:

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."

Barack Obama's great difficulty so far has been his inability to find a phrase or a concept equivalent to "the Union" for Lincoln--really a shorthand for the above-stated point--or the "New Deal" for Roosevelt. He is trying simply to restore some government role in the regulation of the economy to provide minimum benefits for all, and to put something in place of the mindless anti-government rhetoric that has seized and held the initiative in American political life for the last thirty years. But he has not yet been able to do so, and meanwhile, he is constantly forced, like Lincoln in 1861-2, to make serious compromises to go forward at all. Just as Lincoln in the spring of 1861 told abolitionists who pleaded with him to please God by freeing the slaves at once, "I would like to have God, but I must have Kentucky," Obama has had (with some regret) to rule out a single-payer option for health care. His failure in the economic sphere, unfortunately, seems to be conceptual, not tactical: neither he nor his advisers seem to believe there is anything fundamentally wrong with our deregulated economic system. Lastly, Obama, like Lincoln, has staked much of his first year in office on a mirage of bipartisanship. Lincoln was a brilliant politician, but for too long he cherished the illusion that Unionist sentiment in the South--which he vastly overestimated--would bring the seceded states to their senses and end the war at relatively early date. In the same way, the Democrats have wasted many months chasing Republican support--and cooperative Republicans in the Congress are even rarer than white Unionists in the South 150 years ago.

If the the President and Congressional Democrats succeed in getting health insurance reform through Congress over the next month, then they, like the Northern armies in the west in early 1862, will have seized some momentum. But meanwhile, I wish the President would spend some time reading not only some of Lincoln's speeches, but some of Roosevelt's. Perhaps the actions he takes and the legislation he proposes have to be tentative, but his rhetoric need not be. Here is the climax of the speech he gave on health care last week.

"The United States Congress owes the American people a final, up or down vote on health care. (Applause.) It’s time to make a decision. The time for talk is over. We need to see where people stand. And we need all of you to help us win that vote. So I need you to knock on doors. Talk to your neighbors. Pick up the phone. When you hear an argument by the water cooler and somebody is saying this or that about it, say, no, no, no, no, hold on a second. And we need you to make your voices heard all the way in Washington, D.C. (Applause.)

"They need to hear your voices because right now the Washington echo chamber is in full throttle. It is as deafening as it’s ever been. And as we come to that final vote, that echo chamber is telling members of Congress, wait, think about the politics -- instead of thinking about doing the right thing.

"That’s what Mitch McConnell said this weekend. His main argument was, well, this is going to be really bad for Democrats politically. Now, first of all, I generally wouldn’t take advice about what’s good for Democrats. (Laughter.) But setting aside that, that’s not the issue here. The issue here is not the politics of it.

"But that’s what people -- that’s what members of Congress are hearing right now on the cable shows and in the -- sort of the gossip columns in Washington. It’s telling Congress comprehensive reform has failed before -- remember what happened to Clinton -- it may just be too politically hard.

"Yes, it’s hard. It is hard. That’s because health care is complicated. Health care is a hard issue. It’s easily misrepresented. It’s easily misunderstood. So it’s hard for some members of Congress to make this vote. There’s no doubt about that. But you know what else is hard? What Leslie and her family are going through -- that’s hard. (Applause.) The possibility that Natoma Canfield might lose her house because she’s about to lose her health insurance -- that’s hard. (Applause.) Laura Klitzka in Green Bay having to worry about her cancer and her debt at the same time, trying to explain that to her kids -- that’s hard. (Applause.) What’s hard is what millions of families and small businesses are going through because we allow the insurance industry to run wild in this country. (Applause.)

"So let me remind everybody: Those of us in public office were not sent to Washington to do what’s easy. We weren’t sent there because of the big fancy title. We weren’t sent there to -- because of a big fancy office. We weren’t sent there just so everybody can say how wonderful we are. We were sent there to do what was hard. (Applause.) We were sent there to take on the tough issues. We were sent there to solve the big challenges. And that’s why we’re there. (Applause.)

"And at this moment -- at this moment, we are being called upon to fulfill our duty to the citizens of this nation and to future generations. (Applause.)"

Let us compare this to the conclusion of Lincoln's July 1861 message to Congress which I quoted above.

"It was with the deepest regret that the Executive found the duty of employing the war power in defense of the Government forced upon him. He could but perform this duty or surrender the existence of the Government. No compromise by public servants could in this case be a cure; not that compromises are not often proper, but that no popular government can long survive a marked precedent that those who carry an election can only save the government from immediate destruction by giving up the main point upon which the people gave the election. The people themselves, and not their servants, can safely reverse their own deliberate decisions.

"As a private citizen the Executive could not have consented that these institutions shall perish; much less could he in betrayal of so vast and so sacred a trust as these free people had confided to him. He felt that he had no moral right to shrink, nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow. In full view of his great responsibility he has so far done what he has deemed his duty.

"You will now, according to your own judgment, perform yours. He sincerely hopes that your views and your action may so accord with his as to assure all faithful citizens who have been disturbed in their rights of a certain and speedy restoration to them under the Constitution and the laws."

It did not occur to Lincoln to quote the rhetoric even of his northern political opponents (and he had many), nor to suggest that he could have more comfortably taken an easier path. He knew he had a task of enormous importance to world history, and his language always suggested this his chosen course of action was, to quote another great American document, self-evident.

And here is an almost random excerpt from FDR's rhetoric early in his Presidency, in a fireside chat delivered in the spring of 1934, when the success of his program was quite limited--if already visible--and opposition to him among Republicans and in the press was beginning to grow.

"Before I come to any of the specific measures, however, I want to leave in your minds one clear fact. The Administration and the Congress are not proceeding in any haphazard fashion in this task of government. Each of our steps has a definite relationship to every other step. The job of creating a program for the Nation's welfare is, in some respects, like the building of a ship. At different points on the coast where I often visit they build great seagoing ships. When one of these ships is under construction and the steel frames have been set in the keel, it is difficult for a person who does not know ships to tell how it will finally look when it is sailing the high seas.

"It may seem confused to some, but out of the multitude of detailed parts that go into the making of the structure, the creation of a useful instrument for man ultimately comes. It is that way with the making of a national policy. The objective of the Nation has greatly changed in three years. Before that time individual self-interest and group selfishness were paramount in public thinking. The general good was at a discount.

"Three years of hard thinking have changed the picture. More and more people, because of clearer thinking and a better understanding, are considering the whole rather than a mere part relating to one section, or to one crop, or to one industry, or to an individual private occupation. That is a tremendous gain for the principles of democracy. The overwhelming majority of people in this country know how to sift the wheat from the chaff in what they hear and what they read. They know that the process of the constructive rebuilding of America cannot be done in a day or a year, but that it is being done in spite of the few who seek to confuse them and to profit by their confusion. Americans as a whole are feeling a lot better—a lot more cheerful than for many, many years."

It has become clear to me that Roosevelt benefited from circumstances unique to himself. Unlike either Lincoln or Obama, he came into an office when literally no one could deny the extent of our national crisis and everyone welcomed his leadership. Yet this quote shows how, within a little less than a year, he had (as Lincoln took much longer to do) embraced the idea of building a radically different United States and placed all his many measures within the context of an entirely new vision. That is why, in my opinion, his achievements were both more substantial and more long-lasting than Lincoln's--who in the end did preserve the Union but could not lay the foundation for a better America based on different ideals.

We do not know what future events may once again increase the sense of crisis in the United States today, but history suggests that Barack Obama needs above all to decide exactly where he wants to take the United States and communicate his vision, in simple terms, to the American people. Or perhaps he, like Lincoln, will have to content himself with trying to prove, once again, that the government founded in 1787 can function at all.

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.