The Magazine

Don't Change 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

From the October 12, 2009 issue: There are sound reasons--unbigoted ones--for our policy on gays in the military.

Oct 12, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 04 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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There is a new consensus on gay marriage: not on whether it should be legalized but about the motives of those of us who oppose it. All agree that any and all opposition to gay marriage is explained either by biblical literalism or anti-homosexual bigotry. This consensus is brilliantly constructed to be so unflattering to those of us who will vote against gay marriage--if we are allowed to do so--that even biblical literalists and bigots are scrambling out of the trenches and throwing down their weapons.

Recent opinion polls show that this is even more true of the opposition to "Don't ask, don't tell," which now seems to claim majorities among Republicans and regular churchgoers, for example, if not among servicemen and women themselves. I suspect these liberalizers have been persuaded that there really is no argument to be made on the other side, which is also what allows the rhetorical shock troops of the left to apply the discrediting word "bigotry" to those who are not so persuaded. This is the way our national conversation takes place now. Instead of serious problems on which men and women of goodwill may differ, all that remains on issue after issue, from global warming to gay marriage to health care, is a crude moral melodrama pitting enlightened and civilized adherents of the media consensus against -bigots and reactionaries.

Once so identified, one is presumed in advance to have no rational case to make but only a knee-jerk reaction against "change"--that quality which, divorced from any substance, took on mystical properties during the late presidential campaign. We have the president's own word, at least, that the change he intended included allowing gay servicemen to serve openly, even where once this was thought to be prejudicial to "good order and discipline." Maybe good order and discipline are themselves now to be thought the concerns only of "bigots."

Yet if reason were to be readmitted to the debate, we might find something in the history of military honor to justify the principle now enshrined in the law decreeing that "homosexuality is incompatible with military service." We know that soldiering--I mean not training or support or peacekeeping or any of the myriad other things soldiers do, but facing enemy bullets--is inextricably bound up with ideas of masculinity. We also know that most heterosexual males' ideas of masculinity are inextricably bound up with what we now call sexual orientation. In other words, "being a man" typically does mean for soldiers both being brave, stoic, etc.--and being heterosexual. Another way to put this is to say that honor, which is by the testimony of soldiers throughout the ages of the essence of military service, includes the honor of being known for heterosexuality, and that, for most heterosexual males, shame attends a reputation as much for homosexuality as for weakness or cowardice.

This is not, of course, to say that homosexuals are weak or cowardly--only that the reputation of manliness, which we know to be an important component of military honor, is in practice incompatible with the imputation either of homosexuality or of weakness and cowardice. Now presumably an argument for the armed forces' being required to accept gay recruits is that it doesn't have to mean this, and that this simple reality is merely the product of custom and convention and no essential part of the moral and emotional equipment of men capable of nerving themselves to face combat. Possibly they are right. But what if they are wrong? Is there any way to find out without taking a real risk with national security? Are the advocates of gays in the military prepared to say, fiat justitia, ruat caelum? And if so, do the rest of us, the majority of gays and straights alike who would prefer not to take such a risk with our lives, property, and freedom, have any say in the matter? Or are the wishes of this minority of a minority to be paramount? They say they demand the "right" to make the supreme sacrifice for their country, and yet they are unwilling to make the presumably lesser sacrifice of being publicly reticent about their sexual behavior--or the sacrifice of not being in the military. It doesn't add up, somehow.