The Military at a Crossroads Again





Maria Höhn and Martin Klimke are the authors of "A Breath of Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

The ongoing debate on the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy (DADT) brings to mind the debate on integrating the military some seventy years ago.  In many ways that debate was a profoundly different one, yet many of the arguments made today are surprisingly reminiscent of how the conversation unfolded back then.

When the U.S. was preparing to take on the Nazi racial state in 1940, military planners faced the question of whether white and black U.S. troops should fight together in integrated units, as African American civil rights activists insisted.  Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall rejected their calls, however, because he believed that integrating the military during a time of war would jeopardize not only discipline but also morale.  Thus, the military’s officers’ training manual asserted that the use of segregated units was not an endorsement of a belief in racial distinctions but merely reflected “practical military expediency.”  Hidden behind the language of expediency, however, lay the ugly truth that most commanders did not believe that an integrated military could ever be an effective fighting force.

With these views, the military merely gave voice to widespread prejudices of the time.  A July 1943 survey conducted by the Office of War Information showed that 96 percent of white soldiers from the South and 85 percent from the North insisted on segregation in the military.  The attitude among African American GIs could not have been more different:  90 percent of Northern blacks and 67 percent of their Southern counterparts wanted to serve in integrated units.

Yet on July 26, 1948, despite vehement opposition from Southern Democrats in Congress and what can only be called recalcitrant resistance from the military leadership, President Harry S. Truman took a courageous step and issued Executive Order 9981, ordering the speedy integration of America’s military. Truman demanded that, “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” Although it would take many more years and another war—this one in Korea—for the de facto implementation of this policy to take hold, with his Executive Order Truman struck a first, decisive blow to the doctrine of  “separate but equal,” the cornerstone of Jim Crow America.  

Truman’s decision, in the midst of the rapidly accelerating Cold War and growing fears of a possible confrontation with the Soviet Union, was a bold one, and not without its critics. The naysayers, including the secretary of the Army as well as most of the military brass, warned of deteriorating morale and troop cohesion, or the detrimental impact this revolutionary policy change was bound to have on military effectiveness.  Indeed, how could white soldiers be expected to eat together with black soldiers; were they to share the same showers and bathrooms?  How could “miscegenation” be prevented when racially mixed dances were held on military bases?  So concerned were the opponents of integration about the social implications of the policy that an exasperated chairman of the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services asked General Omar Bradley during one hearing: “General, are you running an Army, or a dance?”

Many of these arguments sound remarkably similar to what opponents of repealing DADT are saying today.  Then as now, opponents worry about whether troops showering together or using the same bathrooms could remain tough fighters.  Then as now, opponents caution the military not to enact such fundamental reforms during a time of war.  Then as now, domestic concerns and political calculations exercise a tremendous influence on the debate.  Then as now, these debates also have larger implications for U.S. foreign policy and how America is perceived across the world.

Truman integrated the military during the 1948 election because his opponent in the Republican Party, Thomas E. Dewey, ran on a platform that endorsed this very policy.  Just as important for Truman were foreign policy concerns.  As the leader of the “Free World,” Truman was embarrassed by the fact that a segregated Jim Crow army was charged with occupying and democratizing post–Nazi Germany.  The Soviets were only too happy to point to America’s Achilles’ heel in order to expose as hypocrisy America’s claim to leadership in Europe.

Those external pressures to force change do not exist in today’s post-Cold War era, some might argue.  The stakes in the “War on Terror” are of a different nature. But are they really?  The U.S. cannot at one and the same time claim American exceptionalism and carry its model of democracy across the globe, while denying the most fundamental individual rights to the gay men and women serving in the military.  Insisting that the very men and women who are asked to defend “the American way of life” have to live a daily lie, and have to deny the very essence of their humanity, is at odds with the fundamental principles of American democracy and its emphasis on individual liberty.  The current debates about the repeal of DADT are, therefore, an uneasy reminder of America’s long and continuing struggle to achieve equality for all Americans.

Since 1993, a large proportion of the military brass has come around to a more inclusive view.  The recent Pentagon study also shows that 70 percent of service members—combat and non-combat troops—believe that repealing DADT would yield either positive or mixed results, or have no consequences at all.  Indeed, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, is convinced that abolishing this law will “make us more representative of the country we serve.”  In short, there are no insurmountable obstacles.

Even previous opponents of a repeal, such as General Colin Powell, have changed course.  Long before the current debates about DADT, Powell gave a speech in 1986 before a cohort of young officers at an Equal Opportunity Conference sponsored by the U.S. Army stationed in Europe.  He recalled some of his own painful experiences with segregation and the progress the United States and the military had made in race relations during his lifetime and service.  In Powell’s estimate at the time, the fulfilment of America’s democratic promise had been a guiding vision for “enlightened leaders” in the military and for any commander-in-chief.  Striking a personal note, he told the young officers:  “The kind of Equal Opportunity that I fought for, and the progress I lived through over the last twenty-eight years,” needed to be extended “to every person in our society of whatever racial origin, [or] whatever sex.”

In 1986, Powell was clearly concerned with emphasizing equal opportunity for women soldiers, who had been integrated into all-male military units only in 1978.  Sexual orientation was not yet part of Powell’s vision of equality.  Indeed in 1993, he was one of the most influential voices against allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.  But that was then.  Today, Colin Powell has come around to a different point of view because “attitudes and circumstances have changed.”  He ended his 1986 speech by stressing that “full Equal Opportunity is a reality that catches up to a dream, and hopefully in my lifetime, and hopefully while I am still in the army.  There is a lot left to do.”  We could not agree with him more.

In 1948, Truman’s Executive Order declared that “that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country’s defense.”  In 2010, it is time to fulfill Truman’s promise of equality by including sexual orientation.


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Bill Heuisler - 1/2/2011

Dear Mr. Mehlinger,
Wear a ring? Base housing? Speak about? You have obviously never served in a combat-ready squad/ platoon/ company where the main mission was fighting.

Such trivialities illustrate a false, degraded view of the military. Have you ever served? If you had, you would realize gays have always been there, but no body gave a damn as long as it wasn't shoved in their face. Most important, nobody talks about private sexuality except in casual, nonspecific conversation.

Rings, housing and conversation meant very little on the run up to Baghdad. Your "burden of secrecy" is a trite little joke and has been around since the first gay man or woman served.
What we are talking about here is the DADT protection that was enacted to lift the "burden" from gays to answer questions. DADT also lifted a burden from NCOs who no longer were obliged by the UCMJ to act on rumors or allegations.
Lifting DADT is asking for trouble for purely political reasons.
Bill Heuisler


Richard F. Mehlinger - 1/2/2011

Dear Mr. Heuisler,
Are you married? If so, I invite you to consider exactly what your life would be like if, as a soldier, you were not able to wear your wedding ring, you were not able to speak about your wife, you were not able to share base housing with her, you were not able to keep her picture on your desk, and you knew that if anyone were to discover your relationship with her, you could lose your job. THAT is what you are asking of gay, lesbian, and bisexual soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines when you ask them to stay in the closet, and that is what they had to live with every day under DADT. It is a dreadful, terrible, and most unjust burden, and it is one that simply should not be imposed upon those who wish to serve their country.

This is not about turning the US military into La Cage Aux Folles. It is not about flaunting anything. It is simply about allowing queer servicemen and women to serve their country without suffering under the tremendous burden of secrecy. Unwanted sexual advances are still prohibited under laws and, presumably, military regulations against sexual harassment. As an aside, I will respectfully point out that, given the amount of alcohol that gets consumed on liberty, there's probably rather more cross-dressing going on there than you might expect. Just saying.

Furthermore, I would like to point out that Harry Truman carried out racial integration of the US military despite considerably greater opposition than today exists for the repeal of DADT. He did not refrain from doing so due to fears on the impact of morale; he knew that as a matter of justice and a matter of policy it was the right thing to do. The military as an institution is strictly hierarchical, and strictly subordinate to civilian government. It most certainly is NOT a democracy. Simply stated, the opinions and prejudices of the rank-and-file are of only minor relevance to determining policy; other concerns can, should, and do override them. Even so, in this case it appears that opinion is on the side of repealing DADT.

I would also like to point out that a number of countries allow queer servicemen and women in their armed forces, and the sky has not fallen. In fact, the Israeli military not only permits them to serve but drafts them, just like everyone else. Yet I submit to you that you would be hard-pressed to find a better fighting force anywhere in the world than the IDF.

I would also like to go on to say that I find your lack of faith in the personal fortitude of our nation's servicemen and women disturbing. They are called upon to make tremendous sacrifices every day. Men and women all throughout the world have long grappled with the fact that other people find members of their gender--and maybe even them personally--sexually attractive. Frankly, so long as this is not expressed in an inappropriate fashion--i.e., unwelcome sexual advances or remarks, sexual harassment, etc.--I don't see how or why this should be more than mildly bothersome, especially compared to facing hostile fire, natural disasters, and the whole panoply of emergencies which members of the military must face. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual soldiers who comport themselves with dignity are not going to cause problems. Those who don't comport themselves with dignity should be treated the same way as straight soldiers who don't.

Though you are incorrect when you state that "sexuality has never had a place in combat" (in fact, historically, sexuality has been central to warfare on a great many levels, and I advise you to look up the history of the Sacred Band of Thebes for a particularly vivid counterexample), the gist of your statement is correct. Soldiers in combat will not dwell on whether their squadmates are gay, bi, or straight. They will focus on doing their jobs. I rather doubt that they will be thinking about their squadmates' sexual orientations whilst under fire; they will be thinking about rather more pressing concerns, such as, I don't know, NOT GETTING SHOT. And really, any soldier who is incapable of ignoring such distractions in a firefight needs to find himself a different line of work.

As an aside, I will note that proponents of DADT seem to have a curious obsession with showers. I'll resist the temptation to psychoanalyze, and simply say that discomfort with public nudity is perfectly understandable--although I would hope that servicemen and women are intelligent enough to realize that they are already showering with non-straight people. However, there is a very simple, very cheap solution to this problem: it's called a curtain. I suspect that, for less than the cost of a fighter jet, the military could outfit every shower on every one of its bases and ships with this revolutionary device. Problem solved.

The repeal of DADT is a major milestone for justice and equality in America. I also firmly believe that doing so will strengthen our national security and our armed forces. Other countries have done this before, and their militaries have not been harmed. Indeed, some of the greatest war heroes throughout the ages have been gay, lesbian, and bisexual (such as, for instance, Alexander the Great, who I will point out had rather more success dealing with Mesopotamia, Persia, and Bactria than we have). Removing this millstone from round the necks of our soldiers will enable them to perform their duties better and will also considerably open up the pool of recruits available to the military.

Opponents of repeal have offered up only the faintest, weakest of rationales, none of which stand up to any degree of scrutiny. And so I find myself wondering: what exactly are they really afraid of?


Bill Heuisler - 12/27/2010

Ms. Hohn and Mr. Klimke,
First, your statistics are wrong. You fail to mention how combat troops and Marines do not support repeal of DADT.
Second, comparing sexual preference to racial identity is insulting to the civil rights movement and to half a million dead Union soldiers.

All men or women are created equal under our laws, but sexual preference is not (and should not be) relevent under modern jurisprudence because it is not usually (nor supposed to be)disclosed in the course of military duties. Sexual preference cannot be a target of discrimination unless it is obviously (openly?)disclosed.

And there's the rub.

Why not ban discrimination on the basis of private sexual preference?
What exactly does, "allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military" mean in barracks life?
Does this allow cross-dressing? Will certain soldiers go on liberty in drag? Will open sexual advances in the barracks be protected speech? Can you imagine the impact on order and discipline of open homosexuality in close quarters? Have either of you lived in a barracks or on board a troop ship?

Other than previously undisclosed sexual preferences being made public in some way, what purpose can there be for insistence on being "open" about a very private matter?

In the current and past military we did not dwell on each other's private preferences. Sexuality has never had a place in combat and would obviously be a distraction that would get many people killed.

Bill Heuisler

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