Saturday, March 27, 2010



Last week, former Supreme Allied Commander (Atlantic) General John Sheehan testified before a Senate subcommittee investigating whether it was prudent to repeal the American military's ban on openly gay soldiers. General Sheehan argued that the military should not alter its policy. He said that openly gay soldiers reduce morale, combat effectiveness and unit cohesion.

To support his assertion, General Sheehan referenced an incident in which the Dutch army failed to defend a Bosnian town against Serbian aggression during Yugoslavia's Civil War in 1995. Although he could not directly attribute the Dutch army's failure to individual gay soldiers, General Sheehan explicitly said that Holland's "socialized" and "permissive" attitude toward homosexuality in the military made its armed forces "ill-equipped" to fight battles.

Dutch officials reacted with surprise to General Sheehan's remarks. They found it bizarre that anyone could link military ineffectiveness to a policy permitting openly gay men and women to serve in the military.

I find General Sheehan's argument bizarre, too. Moreover, I also find it foolish, hypocritical and ignorant. I have long criticized the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy as reflecting a fundamental double standard. It not only assumes that abstract homosexuality makes a person a bad soldier. It also assumes that there are no gay people in the U.S. military. Anecdotal evidence suggests that homosexuality is rife in the armed forces. It's just that no one talks about it. And yet General Sheehan does not suggest that the U.S. military is "ineffective," even though it certainly has gay people in it. Policies do not change the way people are.

But these are not the only flaws in "don't ask, don't tell." Put simply, the entire policy functions on logically untenable premises. First, the policy purports to "strengthen morale, combat effectiveness and unit cohesion" by eliminating openly gay people from service in the ranks. The argument is that openly gay men might form emotional relationships with one another that could jeopardize a particular "mission." Morale and combat effectiveness, in turn, depend on the chain of command. Morale and combat effectiveness require unswerving loyalty to the chain of command. And if men develop romantic connections to one another, then perhaps they will be loyal to one another, not the chain of command. Thus, it is proper to exclude openly gay men from military service: Gay relationships threaten the chain of command because romantic connections switch loyalties from the mission to individual men.

But what about women? The "don't ask, don't tell" policy assumes that romantic connections are only dangerous to the "mission" when they exist between two men. Yet the military allows straight women to serve alongside straight men. Human beings will develop romantic connections with anyone to whom they feel attracted, no matter the gender. Straight men fall in love with straight women just as deeply as gay men fall in love with each other. In that light, the fact that the U.S. military permits straight women to serve with straight men poses the same theoretical danger to morale as allowing openly gay men to serve. Straight people develop romantic connections just like gay people. And according to the army's rationale for "don't ask, don't tell," romantic connections are "bad" because they divide loyalties. Apparently, however, love affairs between men and women in the army do not divide loyalties as strongly as love affairs between men.

This is just ignorant: If the problem is potential romantic connections between soldiers, then neither straight women nor gay men should be allowed to serve in the military. There is no qualitative difference between romantic connections among gay people versus straight people. According to the army's logic, such connections are equally "dangerous to morale" and "unit cohesion." The fact that the U.S. military presumes that gay relationships are somehow "more dangerous to morale" is logically untenable.

I can see no good reason to keep gays from the U.S. military beyond naked prejudice. The only thing that seems to support "don't ask, don't tell" is a historical animus directed from straight men against gay men. Straight men feel "weird" when they know they are sitting next to a gay man, so the policy aims to eliminate that awkwardness. Yet there is no principled reason for this. It functions on the bare assumption that "gay people are different" and therefore must be excluded. To quote Justice Stephen Breyer's observation from the oral argument in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 538 (2003)(the case striking down State gay sodomy laws), "don't ask, don't tell" invokes this reasoning: "I do not like thee, Doctor Fell; the reason why I cannot tell." Straight people in the army just plain don't like being around gay people. That's the only reason for the policy.

I also question the military's assumption that gay relationships could somehow damage unit effectiveness. Leaving to one side the consideration that thousands of gay people already serve in the military without saying so, divided loyalties dominate military service. Men (and women, too) form extraordinary bonds with one another under the stress of combat. Their camaraderie deepens from the moment they enter training to the toughest moments in battle. I have written that the military is inherently socialistic because it cares about its own people; and soldiers are also socialistic because they are all willing to die for their brothers. In fact, they are all willing to die helping to save their brothers, even if their actions "endanger the mission." Put simply, soldiers will always divide their loyalties because they care for each other, romance or not. Allowing openly gay people to serve in the army will not change all soldiers' natural commitments to each other.

Finally, General Sheehan implied that the mere presence of gay people in the Dutch army made it a poor fighting force. This is ridiculous. There is simply no historical correlation between homosexuality and military ineffectiveness. Alexander the Great, Peter the Great and Frederick the Great were all allegedly gay, yet they went down in history as model soldiers. To suggest that an aesthetic sexual taste for members of one's own sex somehow renders a person "effeminate, weak, womanly and unsoldierlike" is simply rank stereotyping. Although history has placed restrictions on the manner in which gay people express their sexuality, it is indisputable that they have served with distinction as soldiers, officers and even conquerors. In that light, General Sheehan's argument that "the presence of gay people" in the Dutch army made it "weak" ignores history.

In conclusion, there is no logical or historical reason to continue the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. It makes pernicious assumptions about the relationship between sexuality and military competence. And it also functions on a double standard because another policy permits straight women to serve alongside straight men. The policy identifies "romantic connections between soldiers" as a reason to exclude openly gay men. Yet it allows straight women to potentially compromise straight men with "romantic connections:" "Romantic connections" are only dangerous among gay men, not straight men. The U.S. military offers no justification for the differential treatment. In that light, it is logically untenable. It simply reflects gross and outdated adolescent stereotypes. Romance is romance; it poses the same "dangers" whether it exists between boys and boys or boys and girls.

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