“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed last week but not really. There are a thousand arguments against this soft ban on homosexuals in the military, many of them concerning high-minded issues about equality and liberty, many of them concerning more practical issues about keeping a staffed and battle-ready military in a time of decade-long war. I agree with just about any argument against this policy, up to and including, “Repealing it will piss off homophobic idiots.”
But let’s examine this issue from a different angle, one that isn’t focused on homosexual equality per se, but more on the basic structure of American society, and how I believe it could, if we don’t pay attention, turn dangerously militaristic. The last 60 years or so have been an experiment in maintaining global military supremacy with a civilian government and a volunteer force. The way forward, until now, has been through sheer economic superiority and the decision to leverage that by outspending the world at large on military research and arms. As we enter a period in which American economic superiority will be challenged, this method of keeping up military might without becoming a military nation will also be challenged.
Fear #1: The notion of civilian control is eroding. Barack Obama has been somersaulting on this issue. I don’t know the man personally, but I sense that he’s conflicted on three levels: 1) he wants to end DADT for political reasons; 2) he’s ambivalent about DADT for personal, perhaps religious reasons; 3) he’s apparently incapable of ending DADT for military reasons. At least, that’s his argument. But we have kept this democracy strong and alive by severely limiting the military’s on-paper power in government. While there’s no doubt that the military is a singularly powerful force in Washington politics, there is no official standing for it to make decisions about the rule of law, the enforcement of law, or the diplomatic policies of our nation. These powers belong to a civilian Congress and a civilian President, with a civilian judiciary to rein in excesses. What does it mean for a Commander-in-Chief to be unable to end a military policy? What does it imply about his ability to dictate decisions on the battlefield, or even where the battlefield should be? If Mr. Obama cannot say “stop discharging soldiers for being gay,” can he say “stop fighting this or war” or “no, I don’t want to fight that new war”? Obviously, he must defer to the training and judgement of senior officers in terms of actual battlefield execution and soldier movements, but shouldn’t he be able to make the biggest decisions from his desk? Isn’t that desk, as one he was voted to sit behind, the safest place to put such momentous decisions?
If the military is blocking the repeal of DADT, doesn’t that amount to a coup?
Fear #2: The continuing existence of DADT infantilizes an already infantile nation. Cynics have been arguing for years that the American people have been dumbed into sheephood by an idiotic mass media and a condescending body politic. I try to keep an optimistic view of these things; if you know where to look, there are plenty of conduits for intelligent engagement between policy-makers and everyday citizens, and maybe it’s okay that a vast majority of any given population doesn’t have the time, education, or inclination to give a crap about politics. Asking every citizen to be fully engaged in politics is akin to asking every citizen to be fully engaged in baseball. You either enjoy it and find it important or you don’t. The ability to not find politics enjoyable or important is one of the freedoms we are allowed to have.
However, there are instances in which policy is crafted specifically to mollify the unengaged electorate, and I find those instances horrifying. DADT is one of them. When Clinton put this policy in place, he was asking us to believe that before the policy, there were no gay servicemembers, and that after the policy, there might be gay servicemembers, but there shouldn’t be any. The very name, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” sounds like libertarian compromise but translates into a peculiar bigotry, one that designates some soldiers as inferior then asks them to pretend they are not … when they are not inferior to begin with. Homosexuals are asked to wear a mask of heterosexuality. Imagine a World War II in which African-Americans were asked to service in white face paint. “Don’t Wash, Don’t Show.”
Secondly, Americans were being told that homosexuality is, in fact, a compromising force in military service. Somehow, a sexual orientation being present in the barracks and on the battlefield would “weaken morale” in ways that being shot at and watching friends get blown up couldn’t accomplish. Americans were told that our soldiers were, indeed, backward uneducated bigots who would commit desertion at proximity to a member of the same sex who felt and thought differently than them. We were told that the vast majority of our soldiers are idiots.
Of course, that’s not what we’re always told. What we’re always told is that our soldiers are the bravest, toughest, highest-minded members of our society, and that we should celebrate their every sacrifice as the noblest of human endeavors.
I believe this duality is a result of the volunteer policy that came into play after Vietnam. Now that the military experience is an exceptional one instead of a commonplace one, the unengaged electorate is imprintable about what soldiering is about. A marketing message can be put forth, one that cheers soldiers on as “those other people who do things” while also recruiting with lines like “wouldn’t you want to be a hero?” In World War II (and, to a lesser extent, Korea and Vietnam), being in the military was a common passage of life: a majority of men served. It was hard to float marketing messages about the glory and the nobility of military life when three of your neighbors served and could give you, in detail, the scoop about military life over a barbecue.
Witness the disappearance of military comedies, which used to be commonplace, from mass culture. That says a lot about how connected the general populace is to the military experience.
I have no military experience, and neither does anyone in my immediate family. But I have known dozens of people who have served, in all branches, currently and formerly, and they all have a few things in common:
1) They are smart. I have yet to meet a soldier who wasn’t well-educated, deeply contemplative, or both. They are also all ambitious men and women, which usually is a sign of deep intelligence and extreme capability.
2) They know the military is flawed. Maybe I haven’t been inside the military as deeply as I should, but I can say that the “yessir everything we do is right and good” soldier appears to be a myth. Soldiers are as critical as anyone else.
3) They are diverse. I won’t sit down and do the statistics, but if you want to make a checklist of every minority in America, I have met at least one current or former servicemember from each one. (This, yes, includes gays and lesbians.) I also know a few white suburbanites. In fact, two of my three neighbors growing up are currently serving in the Army and Air Force.
Put these three facts together, and the suggestion that soldiers are incapable of handling the full diversity of the human experience is ludicrous. Worse, it’s degrading. DADT is one of those failed policies that manages to degrade both the constituency that it’s attempting to degrade and the rest of the population at large.
Soldiers, on the whole, can handle gayness. To suggest otherwise is frankly un-American. To suggest that the soldier who can’t handle gayness would desert or otherwise subvert our military goals is to profoundly misunderstand the nature of our armed forces. The soldiers I know would rather fulfill an unpleasant order than turn their backs because a fellow troop thinks a different flavor of dirty thoughts at night in the barracks.
Fear #3: DADT will be a political conduit for backlash against gay marriage. There is a pattern in the history of American civil rights that the courts push forward a more open future (based on the fucking Constitution, of course, lest we forget where all these notions of equality come from), then the noisy minority electorate wedges some legislators into the works to somehow repeal or roll back those rights. The cultural war on gay marriage is being fought, as it should be, in the states. It’s hard for the country as a whole to dictate the positions of every single state, so this type of progress is less prone to minority wedge politics. (Not that it hasn’t stopped the good people of Utah from interfering in California, but that’s another topic.)
A presidential policy in regards to the military, though, is a different matter. Obama’s move on this one will also move votes. Not in the sense that those “for” Obama will suddenly be “against” him - those columns seem more secure than ever. In the sense that those “against” him will be urged to vote that way, while those “for” him will consider their position accomplished and perhaps stay home to watch The Daily Show.
Obama is governing on the timetable of 8 years because that’s what he believes his reforms and policies will take. Sometimes, I wish he (and all politicians) would govern like there is no next election, no mid-term election, no campaign strategizing at all. I wish there were a way to legislate that legislators legislate the beliefs that got them elected. But that’s like wishing for honesty in politics, or unicorns in my backyard.
So, with DADT, we have a policy that doesn’t accomplish anything positive and that’s visibly thinning the ranks of a volunteer military during a time of war, and a president who won’t end it even though he has vowed, repeatedly, that he will, because of a phantom notion that some people will … do … something … if it goes away.
If there are any extreme homophobes serving our country right now, and if they indeed are inclined to commit violence against their fellow servicemembers because they are gay, or if they are inclined to break ranks over the open inclusion of the random 5% of the population that already exists whether they like it or not, then I propose that these extreme homophobes are terrorists.
The threat of their violence and destruction is panicking the electorate, shaping the debate of Congress in a fractious manner, and hamstringing the President from carrying out his sworn duty as Commander-in-Chief. Aren’t these the consequences we fear of successful terrorism?
Politics and timing and due process of order be damned. Let’s all grow up, take a deep breath, drop the fear, and get rid of a juvenile policy once and for all.