Memorial Day and Repealing DADT
Harry Truman liked to observe that there’s something about DC that turns physically brave soldiers into cowards. Moral cowards. Most often, the motivator of this cowardice is presumed to be political: protecting service budgets, advancing bureaucratic agendas, playing the game and in general, as one decorated Air Force pilot once described it to me: “Keeping the crap going.” But every so often, this uniformed cowardice arises in response to issues that are fundamentally moral.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), is now legally dead. Rationality, reality and necessity have triumphed over bigotry, phobia and cruelty. What remains is the needlessly slow and graceless process of rewriting and implementing laws and regulations in order to allow homosexual and bisexual people to serve openly in the military. Perhaps this process will ultimately result in the Supreme Court’s overturning of the “Defense of Marriage Act” on constitutional grounds, for our Constitution not only neither mandates nor acknowledges but cannot tolerate classes of citizens. Of more immediate concern is the military aspect of ending all discrimination against our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters, of sexual orientations other than the purely heterosexual.
Today, the military needs good people, willing and able to serve. The competence of homosexuals as a group has never been questioned. Further, a generation ago, the military’s own studies found that people of nonconforming sexual orientations were no more of a security risk than straight people, despite their greater vulnerability. To name two of the most damaging, Aldrich Ames and Robert Hansen were not seduced into betraying their country by decadent sex with hot male KGB officers. They were strictly heterosexual and in it for the money and the ego enhancement.
Many have argued that the mere presence of homosexuals destroys military cohesion and combat effectiveness, and that effectiveness must always come first. This is nonsense–unless the cohesion you’re talking about is the property of that ever-shrinking minority (it always was a minority) of genuine homophobes and that it is the absolute right of this minority to determine who coheres and who doesn’t. The cohesion that contributes to combat effectiveness is not the cohesion of everyone being exactly the same, especially in ugly ways, such as the drinking and whoring by which “real” men are thought to bond. Nor is it the cohesion of ostracizing those who aren’t exactly like them. The cohesion that contributes to combat effectiveness is based upon people knowing they can trust each other, and that is typically produced by serious, realistic training–as well as treating people like human beings.
Some diehard opponents on the religious and cultural right love to descant about ogling in the showers, orgies in the barracks, fornication in the foxholes and other “disruptive” behaviors: my goodness gracious, but this obsession demonstrates that homophobes have a very active fantasy life. Others make the case more deftly. Dr. Mackubin Owens, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and a decorated Vietnam Marine, has argued for decades that the threat to cohesion posed by open (not closeted) homosexuals, particularly in combat units, was not their incompetence or even criminality. It was that their presence blurred the vital distinction between eros, or erotic love, and philia, the non-erotic love by which men bond, especially in war. This presumes that philia between heterosexual and homosexual men is uniquely difficult or impossible, either because homosexuals are incapable of it or heterosexuals are so repelled by homosexuality that all they recognize in their comrades is sexuality. This is and always has been nonsense, in the military and everywhere else. The human–including the male–need for love is not limited to sex. Regardless of orientation.
My husband, a former Marine officer who lost two close male friends to AIDS, has told me that, in his experience and observation, the most disruptive group in the military has never been gays. It has always been the “pussy hounds”–the men who drag in the porn, who drag others to the brothels and clubs, who harass and abuse women, and who can’t seem to keep their eyes or their hands off other men’s wives and girl friends.
The pussy hounds–and the evangelicals who can’t stop talking about their own predilections.
The presence of homosexuals in the military neither lowers performance nor diminishes cohesion. Nor have the vast majority engaged in criminal behavior, except insofar as sodomy (defined by the Uniform Code of Military Justice as both oral and anal sex, regardless of the genders of the participants) is a crime under military law (so, incidentally, is adultery). The disturbing truth that it is that the overwhelming majority of serving personnel discharged under DADT have not engaged in cruel, much less criminal, sexual behavior. In fact, while DADT does very little, if anything at all, to protect men from the sexual brutality of other men, it makes servicewomen more vulnerable to such brutality. Want to get out of being honestly accused of harassment, assault or rape, or punish a woman for refusing you sexually? Accuse her of being lesbian.
So how does the military adjust to openly homosexual and bisexual people serving?
Very simply. The military should adopt the policy it implemented successfully during the decades of racial integration. In essence, tell all hands: “We don’t care what you think, what you feel or what you believe. We care about your behavior, including certain types of inflammatory speech. You will control your behavior or we will control it for you, up to and including separation from the military under punitive conditions. Let us be also be clear about something else. Whether your reasons for dislike are religious or personal–or personal masquerading as religious–if your desire to have no contact with homosexual and bisexual human beings is so important to you that you cannot serve or go on serving: Good-bye.
In the current economic climate, I doubt the military would lose that many people–and those who are that irrational, don’t need access to military weapons and ammunition.
But zero-tolerance of opposition is not enough. There should be one single standard of sexual conduct, sternly and fairly enforced, for people of both sexes and all sexual orientations, a standard of conduct based on grace and dignity and human decency. I once had a decent man tell me that he was willing to accept a ban on public displays of affection with his wife, as part of an interim period in which gay people could serve openly but nevertheless discuss nothing of their personal lives. I smiled and gently explained that for his proposal to apply fairly, he would have to take off his wedding ring, remove all photos, and never refer to his wife, their marriage or their children–at all, ever, to anyone, during that period. I didn’t think about that, he said. No, I said. You didn’t. You’re a straight male military officer. None of the gay people you served with dared leave their closet to tell you what it’s really like in there, what it really means, not to not talk about the gory details of sex, but not to talk about their lives. He was silent for a while, and then said, I don’t know that the military or my country could mean that much to me.
It’s that simple. Homosexual and bisexual people should no more coarsely flaunt their sexuality or equate coarsened sexuality with military virtue than heterosexual people should. Sexual threats and cruelty, even when they do not meet the legal definitions of rape, assault or harassment, should simply be unacceptable. None of us has a right to impose ourselves upon another, especially not with the intimacy and immediacy of sexuality. And the responsibility is going to be on those homosexual and bisexual troops who chose to come out to behave as absolute gentlemen and gentlewomen, far beyond “One set of rules for all.” That may not be fair, but the world would be a better place were heterosexual people held to such a standard too. As for those who claim that homosexuals will inevitably become a “favored minority” within the military, the only proper response is: That’s a leadership failure.
But there’s another kind of leadership failure that, to my knowledge, is never discussed. Within the military are men and women, some quite senior, who have been so deformed from a lifetime spent in their own closets, that they cannot be happy for their juniors. Others, perhaps, long hetero or celibate, had lovers and affairs once upon a time that they have never come to terms with, for ill or good.
It matters to be very honest here. Most of these people, about whom I am writing, are men: not only because the military is majority male by both demographic and cultural ethos but because our image of male homosexuality is far less congruent with the soldierly virtues than is our image of female homosexuality. Many of these men, most of whom are probably wearing half the decorations they have earned, have had to live with the knowledge that institutionally and culturally, the US military, the military to which they have dedicated themselves that is now their military, would have looked with far more favor had they used prostitutes and harassed or even raped servicewomen, than the fact that they may have had a love affair with another serviceman. Incidentally, that language is from James Herr’s book Dispatches: in a passage that I have always remembered, he writes of another reporter whose mind was blown when he awoke from a nap on China Beach to hear two Marines next to him “making love”, and he himself reading graffiti in a latrine: I think I’m “falling in love” with Jake. The quotes are exact, precise and deliberate: he wasn’t writing about people “screwing” or “f*cking.”
I want to be clear about this: in the military, as in much of civilian society, it is still regarded as far more masculine–even acceptable and moral–for a man to hurt and abuse, even rape, women, than to be physically and sexually tender and mutually loving with another man. When you look at the military’s numbers sexual assault and prosecution and gay discharge numbers, that is the story in black and white, and it should horrify and shame us all and provoke some very hard questions about how we think about men and women, courage and aggression, and love and sex.
It is beyond hard and ugly to write this and I cannot imagine what it was like to have lived it. But almost as long as this issue has bedeviled me, I have known men–serious soldiers with serious combat decorations–who did live it and other men who probably did. I am remembering one sergeant major with two tours and an extension to each tour in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne, earning 2 Bronze Stars with the V, for valor, in particular.
It will be hard for these leaders, as it is always hard for people who struggled to watch their juniors accept the benefits of their struggles without a second thought or even a thank-you. It will be especially hard for those leaders who choose to stay closeted. So long as they continue to behave fairly, honorably and competently, they merit our gratitude and respect, even if we’ll never know their names.
Finally, the spouses and dependents of gay service members must receive the same benefits and rights as their heterosexual counterparts. It will likely take years for the courts to sort it all out. Unless, of course, Congress accepts the logic and the justice of the situation and enacts legislation mandating equality on the grounds that military effectiveness requires it. As a great philosopher once put it, irony can be pretty ironic. And sometimes, also, delicious.