A Question of Priorities

Earlier this year, while testifying at a Senate hearing, a former NATO Commander and Marine General, John "Jack" Sheehan, committed an extreme violation of political correctness. He contended that openly gay soldiers undermine military effectiveness. The general has since apologized for his comments after apparently getting his mind right. Nevertheless, as Congress and the president have renewed their push for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) and the Secretary of Defense has offered tepid support, perhaps his original statement merits more careful consideration.

The story General Sheehan told the Senate involved a Dutch military unit responsible for guarding the town of Srebrenica during the Bosnian War. The Dutch, like many European nations, allow homosexuals to serve openly. This particular unit, according to the general's sources from within the Dutch leadership, was under-strength and poorly trained. As a result, Serbian forces were able to overwhelm the Dutch, handcuff them to telephone poles, and then execute over eight thousand of the town's men and boys. An incredulous Senator Levin asked the General if Dutch leaders told him that this massacre was a result of openly homosexual soldiers. The General replied "Yes, they included that as part of the problem."

Assuming that, unlike Senator Levin, you are able to control your moral indignation for a moment, consider what the General was trying to say. He was certainly not saying that the mere presence of gay soldiers in that particular Dutch unit caused it to fail. General Sheehan and others object to the president's proposed repeal of DADT not because they believe that gays are somehow unqualified to serve. Instead, the objections center on the effect such a policy change would have upon the mission first mindset of our military. Ultimately, this decision is much larger than whether or not we should allow openly homosexual service members. Repeal of DADT would signal a significant shift in American military policy from a focus on military effectiveness to an individual's "right" to serve.

The repeal of DADT will have real military costs. Currently, many soldiers live in military barracks that are segregated by gender. In a post-DADT military, housing a lesbian soldier, for example, with either gender is extremely problematic. This is not because soldiers are homophobes, but because most would find that it violates their natural inclinations of sexual modesty. This desire for privacy is particularly acute in intimate situations such as sleeping, bathing, and dressing. Maintaining minimal levels of privacy would become even more difficult when units are deployed and options are further limited. These logistical issues will require either a massive restructuring of military facilities and procedures or a reprogramming of every soldier's perception of sexuality. The former creates massive disruptions of the military's systems with an unknown impact on morale and discipline, while the latter is unrealistic.

Openly homosexual soldiers create more than logistical problems. The military is an environment radically different from civilian society -- one of intense discipline and unquestioning loyalty. In this world, distractions can be catastrophic, and sex is the ultimate distraction. This is particularly true for those in their late teens and twenties, a demographic that represents a large percentage of the military. Whenever you are around people you consider sexually attractive or people who you suspect may consider you sexually attractive, there will be distractions. The military can establish policies in an effort to minimize these distractions (we have had reasonable success with gender integration, for example), but these policies themselves create inefficiencies. Thus, the issue is whether we should incur these inevitable costs.

Moreover, the repeal of DADT will not end this debate.  If homosexuals are allowed to serve openly, then cross-dressing, transgender, and bisexual soldiers will soon follow. The housing difficulties discussed earlier would be quickly followed by debates over uniform requirements, grooming standards, and military etiquette, all of which are currently delineated along gender lines. The confusion created by such a policy would be devastating to military discipline.             

All of this is not to say that openly homosexual service members would lead directly to military defeat. It is safe to say that, for time being at least, the technical and tactical superiority of the United States' military could overcome whatever costs we would incur by repealing DADT. Instead, the argument is that the increased cost in maintaining military effectiveness without DADT is unwise. A similar cost-benefit analysis has led to military policies that bar other groups from service; currently the military prohibits Americans who are too heavy, thin, tall, or short, or who have various medical ailments, from service. The military is forced to group people by characteristics, weigh the costs and benefits of each group, and determine what best fulfills the needs of the armed forces. A shift away from our mission-first mindset decreases overall effectiveness, and these subtle erosions have a cumulative effect. Our military can bear these additional costs only to a point, but eventually, it may be an American unit that is handcuffed to telephone poles -- or worse.

The anti-DADT people focus on what is "fair" or "just" to the individual homosexual citizen who desires to serve. But the military is a rare place in our society, one that values unity and conformity over individuality. This model has worked exceptionally well over the previous two hundred years. What worries General Sheehan, and others who share his point of view, is the shift in military philosophy that would be signaled by repealing DADT. The debate is not over whether gays are brave, patriotic, or willing to fight for their country (lots of them are). But rather, is our ultimate concern in military policy decisions advancing current civilian/social values or fielding the most effective military possible?

Demosthenes is a lawyer whose current employment prohibits taking a public position on political issues. E-mail correspondence may be sent here.