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3 Feb, 2010 20:16

US Army opens risky gay front

US Army opens risky gay front

With the US already fighting two wars, the Pentagon has opened another front, this one over the military's controversial “don't ask, don't tell” policy regarding gay service members.

For many years, the US military dutifully has observed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule, which allows gay servicemen and women to serve in the armed forces, while forbidding them to “come out of the closet” on the issue, so to speak.

At the same time, superiors are not permitted to ask questions concerning the sexual preferences of a serviceman or woman. The rule has permitted commanders, with many more important issues on their minds, like where next to have a war, for example, to tiptoe through this cultural minefield for many years.

Presently, US law mandates that any person who “demonstrate(s) a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts” would be restricted from serving in the US armed forces, because “it would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.”

But it looks as if the US Army is about to lose the high ground on the issue.

Responding to pressure from increasingly vocal gay activist groups, US President Barack Obama promised in his State of the Union Address to revoke that law.

“This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are,” Obama announced in his address to a mixed bag of reactions. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Currently, there are about 66,000 gay men and lesbians, including about 13,000 on active duty, serving in the US military, according to a study released last week by the Williams Institute at the University of California.

Another bipartisan war begins

The US military wasted no time pursuing Obama’s legislation for gays in the US armed forces.

“It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do,” Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a Senate panel on Tuesday. “No matter how I look at this issue I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”

“We really have looked forward to this time when we don't have to be ostracized,” said Mario Benfield, a past commander in the American Legion Post 448, the only military outfit whose membership is predominantly gay and lesbian. The unit is based in, you guessed it, San Francisco.

“Right now we need every man on deck, we can't be picking and choosing unless we're going to bring the draft back,” Benfield added.

The plan has also generated heated criticism from the more conservative, including Senator John McCain, who was a fighter pilot in Vietnam. He argued that while “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was not the perfect solution, it has maintained a degree of order in the ranks.

“It has helped to balance a potentially disruptive tension between the desires of a minority and the broader interests of our all-volunteer force,” McCain told the panel. “It is well understood and predominantly supported by our fighting men and women. It reflects, as I understand them, the preferences of our uniformed services… while still allowing gay and lesbian Americans to serve their country in uniform.”

One of the more controversial takes on the proposal was forwarded by Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute, who managed to offend both the right and the left of the political divide when he said the real test will come inside the barracks amongst the soldiers.

“We can talk about this delicately or we can just be fairly direct,” O’Hanlon told CNN. “But there are a lot of 18-year-old, old-fashioned, testosterone-laden men in the military who are tough guys. They’re often politically old-fashioned or conservative; they are not necessarily at the vanguard, in many cases, of accepting alternative forms of lifestyle.”

As controversial as O’Hanlon’s arguments may sound, they do carry a lot of uncomfortable weight.

After all, is the US Army really the best place to conduct social experiments on the workability of “openly” liberal lifestyles? And "openly" is the key word here. How exactly will that be interpreted by the US military, not to mention the troops, is the elephant in the room nobody is addressing here.

There is a saying that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” which very well may be the case here. It does not take an overly active imagination to consider any number of tragic “misunderstandings” that Obama’s legislation may introduce in US Army barracks across the country. Although there are many intelligent individuals serving in the US armed forces, there are many more who have no appreciation or understanding of the word “tolerance”.

Why open the gay front now?

With the United States bogged down in two protracted wars, is this really the best time to begin a public debate that is guaranteed to be divisive?

Ironically, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” legislation was signed into force in 1993 by former Democratic president Bill Clinton as a liberal gesture. It was promoted as a way to give gays and lesbians an opportunity to serve their country without having to get into the tedious details of their private sex lives. At the time, the legislation seemed almost radical.

No more. Today, gay-rights activists, with Obama fighting in their corner, have been encouraged by recent legal victories in support of same-sex marriages, as well as other groundbreaking legislation.

In October, President Obama signed into law the so-called Matthew Shepard Act, which greatly expands the 1969 US hate-crime law to include crime’s motivated by a person’s actual or perceived gender and sexual orientation and gender identity.

And then there are the financial considerations of DADT, which military leaders say is becoming unsustainable.

According to the study by the Williams Institute, DADT has cost the military up to $500 million for the discharge of persons known to be homosexual. Then there is the cost of recruiting new service members, which reportedly costs the military between $23,000 and $43,000 per discharged serviceman or woman.

So perhaps the US military is hoping to close this expensive loophole, which may also be manipulated by servicemen and women who want to terminate their contracts with the military especially with the war in Afghanistan expecting to “surge” by 30,000 additional troops over the next several months.

Get out of military duty loophole removed

Obama’s "generous plan" will nullify the “get out of duty free card” for those who mistakingly thought that serving in the military meant extra money for college, as opposed to trekking across the deserts of Central Asia in a nasty hunt for Taliban. Perhaps one too many US service men and women were posing as openly homosexual to escape their upcoming duty in the desert? Obama's plan will remove that loophole while, at the same time, appearing to be helping the gay service members. A win-win scenario from a purely political perspective.

But the real battle for the US military may be waiting inside courtrooms across the country. If “gay and lesbian” recruits are permitted to “openly” serve in the US armed forces, this may crack up a can of worms in future legal action against officers who are accused of discrimination. Thus, any savings that the US military hopes to save with the Obama "let it all hang out" plan will probably amount to mere pennies considering the amount the military will have to shell out on lawyer and adviser fees.

Finally, it is interesting that the US military is attempting to win over America’s gay community at the very same time that military policy is radically changing, some say for the worst.

Arguing that the US military must be prepared to shed its minimalistic two-war doctrine, Robert Gates, the US Secretary of Defense (who served in the same capacity in the Bush administration), said the Pentagon will shift to a lower gear to address a broader range of challenges, including terrorism and cyber-security.

“The United States needs a broad portfolio of military capabilities, with maximum versatility, across the widest possible spectrum of conflict,” Gates told reporters just this week. “We have, in a sober and clear-eyed way, assessed risk, set priorities, made trade-offs and identified requirements based on plausible real-world threats, scenarios and potential adversaries.”

Naturally, the threats and risks, Gates argued, are not insignificant. This is reflected by the mind-boggling sum that the Pentagon is hunting for.

The Obama administration is seeking $741 billion in defense spending for 2011, including $75 billion for the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It must be asked now, with such a heavy agenda on its plate, if the Pentagon is not merely delivering a polished advertisement to America’s alternative community in the hope of tapping into a new market for cannon fodder. Clearly, the US military will need a few good men, and it might be thinking that inside of the gay and lesbian community may be one of the best places to find them. 

Should America heed Theban lesson?

Although there may be any number of motivating factors behind the US military’s sudden desire to make peace with the gay community, one thing is certain: the experience will be full of unexpected twists and turns, most of them painful.

“Attitudes within the military have evolved since the policy was established,” as the Christian Science Monitor argued. “But many within the military still have doubts about whether a policy that allows homosexuals to serve openly can be effectively implemented.”

Although the following idea will undoubtedly be called unfeasible and even discriminatory (but as mentioned earlier, the American Legion already has a gay-majority unit based in San Francisco), the US military may want to consider the history of the so-called “Sacred Band of Thebes”, a contingency of 300 troops (150 couples) that made up the elite force of the Theban Army in 4th century BC.

Plutarch wrote that the Sacred Band was comprised of male couples, the rationale being that lovers would fight more fiercely and cohesively than “strangers” without unity.

But before going ahead with this plan, keep in mind that during the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC, Philip of Macedon, together with his son, Alexander (who was not yet 'Great'), destroyed the Theban army, together with most of the Sacred Band.

Robert Bridge, RT