Saturday, February 13, 2010

Repealing DADT

If gays were strictly forbidden from serving in the U.S. military, that might occasion a completely different post from me, one in which I argued for the idea that gays should be allowed to serve in the military. But as we all know, gays are allowed to serve. They’re just not allowed to tell. The general idea is: If you’re gay, please serve your country and possibly die for it; just Shut Up About It. (Of course, under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” there are penalties for telling, but not really for asking.)

The reason “DADT” is more infuriating to me than any other government policy (and that’s saying something, on either side of the aisle) is because it doesn’t even have a patina of coherence. It’s absurd and juvenile on its face, in its very name. It sounds like some lesson imposed in kindergarten, not a plan for adults.

An estimated 65,000 homosexuals already serve in the military. This is one of several things I learned from an essay on the subject by Om Prakash. Another thing I learned there: “Since 1994, the Services have discharged nearly 12,500 Servicemembers under the [DADT] law.”

Prakash is an Air Force Colonel, and his essay won the 2009 Secretary of Defense National Security Essay Competition (OK, maybe they need a catchier name for that thing) while he was a a student at the National War College. It’s a very calm, sensible paper, which isn’t surprising because, although I’m sure not everyone in the military is thrilled about repealing DADT, you don’t hear a lot of highly charged rhetoric coming from within its ranks. Oh, that’s right, because it’s the military, and they might have too much to do to care about what gotcha issue is being used to bait voters this week. Plus, 23 percent of soldiers already say they’re pretty sure they’re serving with a homosexual. Of those, 59 percent say they were told “directly by the individual.”

A Navy submarine officer recently wrote to Thomas Ricks:
The debate may exist in the media, and certainly exists in Congress, but on the ship, if it's talked about at all it’s with a little bit of confusion about what the big deal is. Don't get me wrong, there is homophobia and there are a few loud, mostly uneducated, mostly very junior, and mostly still well-meaning people who would tell you they think it’s wrong—but they're the kind of people who are just saying it because it’s what they were brought up to say, and even they aren't saying it with much fervor. I can tell you with certainty that if the ban were lifted tomorrow—no year of preparation—life would go on exactly as it did before . . . There is no question if the military is ready—the military is waiting. . . . I just want the press to understand that it is the Congress that needs pushing, not the military. . .
Here are just a few of the countries that allow gays to (openly) serve in the military: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom.

Here are just a few that don’t: Cuba, China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela.

See a pattern? I’m sure you do. But just in case: We’re squarely with our enemies on this one. And that seems reason enough to change it.

In his essay, Prakash acknowledges the arguments historically made against openly gay military. He wants to ignore emotional pleas on both sides and “examine the primary premise of [DADT]—that open homosexuality will lead to a disruption of unit cohesion and impact combat effectiveness. . . . If that assumption holds, then the troops lost and money spent could be seen as a necessity in order to maintain combat effectiveness just as other Servicemembers unfit for duty must be discharged.”

Prakash comes to the conclusion that this assumption doesn’t hold. (“[I]ntegration of homosexuals might degrade social cohesion because of the lack of homogeneity; however, the effects can be mitigated with leadership and will further dissipate with familiarity.” Also, those other open militaries I listed above haven’t exactly fallen apart.) But the assumption itself, as posed, isn’t quite right. The idea espoused, even by most of those who support the ban, is not that homosexuals are unfit for duty. It’s that they, by the simple act of being homosexual, make other people unfit for duty. The problem is other people, not the ability of homosexual soldiers to do their jobs. In this case, as in so many others regarding social acceptance of homosexuality, parallels are obvious. There was a time when the military was uncomfortable with blacks or women in its ranks, and in those cases, too, the objections were less about fitness to serve than about, for lack of a better term, cooties.

That’s why, in the end, I see this as a philosophical issue as much as a practical one. (I’m not saying this makes me unique; but I’m sure there are many people who see it as 100% philosophical and some—though probably fewer—who see it as 100% practical.) The military knows this is not a big deal, and of course it does . . . if our military isn’t trained well enough to cope with something that pretty much every other workplace in America knows how to handle, then what chance do we stand? And if Americans can’t stand side by side and fight with Americans who are different from them, what is the point of America again?


Blogger ANCIANT said...

Interestingly (I think): most of the exact same arguments used to justify keeping gays out of the military were used 50 years ago to justify segregating black and white soldiers. The argument was that if they had to serve together, unit cohesion would suffer. Possibly that actually happened, too--at first. But, as you point out, people on patrol in Peshwar probably have many many more pressing issues with which to concern themselves.

Bill Clinton was such a weenie. I'm sorry. What did he actually do? I voted for him too! I'm just saying, looking back--doesn't he seem much worse? And this is just a part of his legacy.

6:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, let me declare my biases. I've got a cousin who joined the military, then came out of the closet as being gay. I love my cousin dearly, and would have a hard time believing that he's not fit for anything merely because he's gay. Naturally, coming from a military family, I've also got complicated feeling about DADT.

Second, let me reframe the argument. As I understand it, the "unit cohesion" argument is less about "gays make other people uncomfortable" than "have you ever tried to keep two 18 year olds who are sexually attracted to each other from having sex?" Folks in active duty military tend to be fit, they tend to be risk takers, they tend to be of an age at which hormones are pressing really hard on the "have sex" buttons, and they're often too young and impulsive to know better. It's the same reason why female soldiers have separate bunk houses, showers, toilets, etc. Because if you put them together, they're going to be more concerned about sex than doing their jobs.

So the largest part of the "unit cohesion" concern isn't that gays have cooties. It's that young people -- who sleep feet from each other and are often 100s of miles from anyone else -- are going to have relationships, and those relationships (and the fallout from break-ups and jealousy and everything else) are going to hurt unit cohesion.

You can mitigate the problem posed by women by having them sleep, shower, and change clothes separate from the men. But what do you do with the gay men and women? Where do you put them? In their own rooms, segregated from both members of the opposite sex and members of the same sex?

Third, I'm not sure that it's fair to suggest that the discomfort some people feel with gays in the military is comparable to "cooties" from the 3rd grade (or, in my case, senior prom). People like you and I tend to think of our comfort working next to a homosexual person in an office setting. What's the big deal, right?

Well, it's much different in the military. Communal bedrooms, communal showers, communal bathrooms. Privacy? Never heard of it. Which, again, is one reason that women are not usually assigned to forward bases. Because there's no way to keep them separate.

Now, I'm sure men could also get used to the idea of showering, sleeping, changing clothes, and using the toilet within a few feet of women, who are also showering, sleeping, changing clothes, and using the toilet. But I think that discomfort is pretty natural.


7:56 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Matt, thanks for emphasizing that the argument about unit cohesion can be reframed -- I was trying to imply a trace of that when I wrote about some thinking it's mostly a practical issue. And I have no doubt that there are practical hurdles to having military serve closely with each other when those military are possibly going to have sexual and/or romantic relationships of some sort. That said: First, this is done in lots of other countries. How do they do it? I don't mean that sarcastically -- I just mean, let's figure out the practical hurdles, look at good examples of how those hurdles have been cleared, and proceed. Secondly, I don't doubt that your (and some other people's) reactions aren't about cooties, but you'd admit that many of the (negative) reactions likely are. Yes, communal bedrooms and bathrooms are not an average circumstance in people's lives, but it's still a jump from that to say it's impossible to make that OK somehow. There are co-ed bathrooms in colleges all across the country at this point, and yeah, that might require some monitoring, but I go back to the idea that this is the military. I have faith they can figure it out. I, for one, am not asking every soul to suddenly be bombarded with sex vibes from their fellow soldiers and just be OK with that in the name of tolerance. Thirdly, I'd really love to know what your cousin thinks about all this. Obviously.

8:33 PM  
Blogger Jason Zinoman said...

Williams, this is a fantastic post. I particularly love this line that brings some real clarity to the issue: "Of course, under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” there are penalties for telling, but not really for asking."

1:18 PM  

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