Running Local

This Train of Thought Makes All Stops

Sometimes There’s Never a Right Time

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 12, 2009

I had an interesting email exchange the other day with a friend who just returned from his second tour as the commander of first an infantry platoon and then an infantry company in the Afghan Theater of the war. We were discussing the resurgence of the Taliban, their improving tactics and the general difficulty of fighting in Afghanistan when the quality of our own troops came up.

As a commander, he is quite satisfied with the quality of men and women that he commands in the field; morale is showing some frays over the issue of multiple combat tours that always seem to get extended just when people start to believe they’re about to go home, but that’s been true of America’s wars for a century. While on the topic of morale, I broached the third rail of personnel issues for the Army, especially– soldiers who are gay.

Don’t ask, don’t tell has become a punchline in the military and the popular culture both. Only fools believe that gay and lesbian personnel aren’t a part of every company, every ship’s crew, every squadron; simple math tells you that the demographic distribution of gay Americans mandates that gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are members of every sizable unit of our Armed Forces. More commonly known amongst military personnel as “Ask, Don’t Tell” for the way the program is actually administered, the policy has been exposed to the hypocrisy that lies at its foundation over the past several years of war, which have seen dismissals from the service under the Don’t Ask rubric decline from the pre-war years– when the military needs specialists who happen to be gay, it seems, they don’t quite pursue their dismissal with the vigor that they do in peacetime.

My friend is sympathetic to the overall cause of openly integrating the force, but he falls back on a common refrain amongst even progressive military thinkers on the topic– you don’t do anything that might cause upheaval within the ranks during time of war. On the surface, that is a seemingly eminently logical point. Wartime is not the time for social engineering, it is a time for boosting morale and getting maximum performance from the troops. Anything that distracts from that goal is an unwelcome distraction, indeed. Why dispose of a policy that, if flawed, has kept something of a lid on the entire situation for fifteen years now?

The liberal knee jerk response is “Because it’s the right thing to do”, of course, and in a vacuum they are right– we know that segregation and bigotry is a fool’s errand as witnessed by the racial segregation our own nation experienced between the Civil War and Civil Rights. Outside of that vacuum, though, that argument isn’t nearly as compelling– even Abraham Lincoln dispatched with a cherished founding stone of our nation, the writ of habeas corpus, due the the exigencies of the Civil War itself, so “because it’s the right thing to do” doesn’t carry as much weight during this time of war due to precedent.

That dismissal, though, is countered to an extent by the excesses of the current war that have found protective coloration in precisely the habeas corpus argument; Guantanamo, “enhanced interrogation techniques”, extraordinary rendition, denial of lawyers and “new” interpretations of the Geneva Convention as it relates to the definition of “prisoners of war” are all beneficiaries of the Bush Administration’s willingness to relax not only our Constitution but also our uncodified standards of conduct. We were collectively complicit in that relaxation, of course– it is far too easy to wash our own hands of culpability and assign the blame to an unpopular President while forgetting that he was elected by the people to represent us and that, truthfully, many of us were so outraged and so angry in the time following 9-11 that even though we may have talked about how much we hated what Bush was doing we went ahead and re-elected him with an even larger share of the vote. American Democracy has eroded as a concept due to the excesses of the Bush Administration, but we can at least stop it from eroding to the point of football, where all ills are blamed on the quarterback even if the fault lies with the coaching staff or the defensive line. Yes, I am amongst those who spoke out against the Bush policies as did many people, who worked or gave money for Kerry and Obama, who worked to elect progressive Congressmen and other elected officials, but I am also an American and that is the overarching reality of all of our lives– we are part of a collective, part of a nation, and we must see reflected in our own eyes its flaws as well as its benefices if we are to be honest with ourselves.

So too, then, must we recognize that there will never be a right time to deny rights, dignity, responsibilities and privileges shared by most Americans to any subset of Americans based on parochial beliefs or even what some might see as demonstrable facts. We are one people in blame as we are one people in right, and as one people it is beyond our honest ability to deny rights ostensibly shared by all to the few. Amongst those responsibilities and privileges is the ability to serve our country in uniform if one so chooses, a right and privilege currently denied any homosexual who chooses to live as themselves rather than in the closet. Yes, allowing openly gay members to serve in the military may cause some minor disruptions in the force structure, but we already have a much larger issue of integration to inform us as to what we can expect– the largely seamless integration of African American soldiers into “regular” units of the military during the Truman Administration. Naysayers predicted catastrophe as a result of unit integration– remember, this was a time when legal integration was still very much a reality in the American South, so making the military much less ready to accept black troops than it is to accept gay troops today. The predictions of mutinies, readiness level declines and other dire events never came to pass, of course, and assuming that they would today over integration of openly gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines is rendered even sillier given that history.

The military command structure itself has implicitly said this by reducing the number of dismissals for homosexuality during the war. The generals & admirals have spoken– dismissing gay troops would cause a greater force disruption than leaving them in place in many cases, as witnessed by the hesitance over the last four years in particular to make a dismissal cases against homosexuals, especially those serving in the technical, intelligence, and language sectors of the military where these men and women serve not only with honor but hold skills and talents integral to the successful waging of the current war.

There will never be a right time to integrate and accept openly gay troops into the force structure– there will always be a compelling argument made by those whom the layman is afraid to challenge on military grounds. The military, however, while being the ultimate guarantor of our safety is also the servant of the people of this nation, not the other way around. Those people must accept that there will never be a right time to deny basic rights to their peers; it is that peer relationship, that we are all Americans under the Constitution, that easily trumps any social, racial, or biological subset we may belong to with the exceptions for cause that are codified under the law (denying felons the vote, preventing the mentally insane judged a hazard to others from owning firearms, and the narrow like).

If a man or woman is willing to protect, defend, and honor their fellow Americans then we are not, as those Americans, too, in a position to deny them. To do so is to redefine the meaning of America in a direction which we have travelled too far and too easily these past seven years. It is time to reclaim our identity, and to do that we must accept that identity is a broad one that embraces all with a birthright to it.

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