Running Local

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Posts Tagged ‘civil rights’

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.


Posted in American History, Cultural Phenomena, History, Human Rights, Social Justice, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Is There So Much Love In The World…?

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 7, 2009

I was talking with a friend the other day about the gay marriage issue and Ken Starr’s efforts to nullify the marriages performed in California in a Moonie-esque pageant of mass divorce. My friend is a good deal more pious than I am or ever will be in a traditional sense, and I respect his point of view and always find our theological conversations interesting.What struck me during the conversation was the concept that God himself, according to the orthodoxy of the Christian Right, is looking at these marriages between a man and a man or a woman and a woman and deeming them wrong. That mystifies me; is there so much love in the world that God can sit in his Heaven and look down upon friends of mine who are deeply, lovingly committed to each other and simply say “Stop that!”? I look around and see wars, hatred, greed, banality, starvation, poverty and strife in so many places; can anyone who believes in God believe that he doesn’t see that, too? And still he would banish this love?

The only logical conclusion to draw from that is that God, according to some of his followers, sees the existence of love between a same-sex couple as being a greater evil in this world than he sees the results of a lack of love for our fellow humans being. Richard & John are a greater evil than the greed that allows some to burn money while other starve? Really? Joan & Linda are a greater evil than bigotry? That can’t be. I’m not buying it.

After twelve years in Catholic Schools, one of the few useful things I took away from all of that religious education and indoctrination is the very ’70s concept of “God is Love”. Curiously, that wasn’t taught to me as “God is love as long as a penis and vagina are involved”, or “God is love under the strictures of sodomy laws of the State of Georgia”. I went to a Franciscan High School; we were taught the value of Saint Francis’ doctrine is of finding love wherever it may be and nurturing it so that God’s peace may flow through it. Is that invalidated by the fact that sometimes a man may be in love with another man? Is it, “Oops, no, we didn’t mean that love,”? Is doing everything that we can as a society to stigmatize, ostracize, and ultimately politicize the love of two people really allowing that love to act as a channel for God’s peace? We face a clear contradiction here; do we want to err on the side of everything we know about the human condition and what many of us believe God’s message to be, that love is good, or do we err on the side of dogmatic insistence and thus against everything we know about ourselves and declare love to be bad? That’s what this comes down to. We must ask ourselves what is the greater good and we must also ask ourselves what marriage actually is and why are so many people so passionate about this issue.

To many marriage is a sacrament of their church, sanctified by God and administered by the clergy; to many others it is a civil, contractual agreement undertaken before a government official. I personally see it as both and neither. Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address said, “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate– we can not consecrate– we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The same is true of marriage. We can say that the courts administer marriage, we can say that the Church sanctifies marriage, but I am a married man. I know that my marriage is a marriage because of my devotion to my wife, because of the love we share and the joys and pains we endure together. We are married not because the State of Rhode Island issued us a certificate saying so; we are married because we are married. Much like that ground sanctified above the powers of a President to enhance or detract, so too is marriage not something so easily defined or, perhaps more importantly, denied by societal whim or prejudice. The men and the women who live in marriage to each other or another are the final arbiters of what a marriage is and who is married. It is mean and churlish of our civil society, then, to deny the trappings and privileges of civil marriage to those who live with its restrictions, pains, and pleasures every day. We deny two men, married in their hearts and partners in their lives, the right to make the decisions about each other’s healthcare at the end of their lives. For the love of God, why? What do we gain, what is there that is sacred in that denial?

Love between consenting adults is love no matter how you cut it, and love, not to sound too drippy, is a power for good in this world. We have too little of it. We need more of it. We can not afford, as a society, to trample upon it for the sake of a notion of purity that is, in the end, nothing more than a matter of semantics. Is our world not richer for the existence of deep emotional bonds of caring for another human being? How can it be that my love for my wife is sanctified but one woman’s love for another is vilified? How is the meaning of my marriage lessened by two men sharing in that same institution based not on the avarice of a heterosexual marriage for money or the banality of a heterosexual marriage of convenience but on the founding principle of the institution, shared and committed love? It is not; I defy anyone to tell me how it is.

I agree with those of a more conservative nature that marriage is a societal good and that the existence of strong families and good marriages is a boon to our civilization. They are, in my estimation, absolutely correct in that belief. I don’t understand, then, why they would stand in the way of more of that good, more strong families, more loving and committed people, just because of mismatched, to their minds, genitalia. It is impossible to ignore the similarities in their arguments against marriage for all peoples and the discredited and shameful arguments made against the “societal doomsday” of miscegenation. The arguments, from a civil standpoint, are one and the same; they are identical. We must set aside our prejudices on so basic a matter of human rights.

It is time to allow people who are married in their hearts to also be married in our courts.

Posted in American Politics, Human Rights | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »

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