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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In fact, we do not know and we cannot know what our armed forces would be like under such conditions. The advocates of allowing open homosexuals to serve often cite the example of Israel or Britain, both of which have integrated homosexuals into their military services apparently without incident. But they have done so in circumstances which do not allow for any objective assessment of the success or failure of the experiment. In Israel, all citizens must perform military service, which presumably affords much more scope for diluting the impact, if any, of the presence of homosexuals than would be the case in an all-volunteer army like that in the United States. In Britain, the change came about in response to an order from the European Court of Human Rights, whose decrees have the force of law. For this reason, it would not be in the interest of any officer who valued his career prospects to remark upon any problems that the presence of gay soldiers, sailors, or airmen might be causing in their armed forces. Nor has the performance of the British Army in Iraq or the Royal Navy in the Persian Gulf been such as to render all suspicion of damage to morale, good order, and discipline ridiculous.

Yes Churchill, as first lord of the Admiralty, once spoke of the traditions of the Navy as being "rum, bum and the lash." And we do know that there have always been gays in the military--and that, therefore, they have been tolerated on the condition that they have been able to behave with discretion. This is not necessarily an argument for "Don't ask, don't tell," which is an attempt to make official what would be unofficial in any case. But if it is no longer possible to rely on the discretion, the decency, and tolerance of the individual soldier, then how much longer can we expect to rely on his courage and readiness to sacrifice himself for the greater good?

In Saving Private Ryan, when the word finally reaches the eponymous hero that his brothers have all been killed and that he is being withdrawn from his forward position as a precaution against his being killed likewise and so leaving his parents childless, his reply is to take in his combat buddies with a sweeping gesture and say: "These are my brothers." It is a way of looking at the experience of men in combat that is so familiar as to be almost a cliché. It echoes the words of Shakespeare's -Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother. Be he ne'er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition.

In order for any military unit to function under extreme conditions, this sense of brotherhood, which is naturally fostered by shared hardships, will always be encouraged by the military culture for the sake of the unit's combat effectiveness.

Nor is the notion of brotherhood merely metaphorical. There is a kind of brotherhood of comrades in arms that should be seen, because it is so often seen by the men themselves, as a species of brotherhood of the blood. Certainly it involves a form of love--in Greek philia--whose strength is essential to the purposes which evoke it. It is striking how seldom this love between men in battle is mentioned by the advocates of lifting the ban on open homosexuals' serving in the armed forces. Characteristically, they argue on the basis of professionalism and the supposed irrelevance of "sexual orientation" to the job of soldiering. But is it irrelevant?

Perhaps even critics of "Don't ask, don't tell" have an uneasy sense that they cannot simultaneously say--as much of the commentary about the film Brokeback Mountain seemed to suggest--that the homosexual relationship is simply friendship carried to a higher power and, as the advocates for gay marriage imply, that it is exactly the same as the erotic love between men and women. Those who are not homosexuals have always resisted any simple equivalence between sexual love and friendship, not out of bigotry but at least partly because to grant it would be an abdication of their own right to love. Characteristically, the robust heterosexual, if told that close friendship with another man is only a degree away from homosexual relations with him, will back off the friendship. He knows, or believes, what it seems the homosexual cannot know or believe, or doesn't want to know or believe, namely that the two sorts of love are different in kind and not just in degree.

The resistance from military men to the idea of gays in the military seems to be due to this perception. In their minds there simply is no continuity between brotherly and erotic love. Indeed, the power of the former would be not just diminished but destroyed by any confusion of the two. When that other kind of love, eros, gets mixed up with the very different kind of love appropriate to siblings or parents and children, we call the result incest, which has been banned, often with extreme prejudice, in almost all cultures known to us. This is because eros is so strong that it corrupts and destroys the other kinds of love which, accordingly, simply cannot coexist with it. Eros is the gray squirrel, the kudzu, the zebra mussel of emotions: When it moves into an environment, it crowds out all its competitors.

Of course it will now be said by our new breed of political moralizers that I have compared homosexual love to incest, thus identifying myself--assuming that I had not already done so--as a bigot. I have done no such thing. I have said that homosexual love, like heterosexual love, must admit of certain human relationships, based on other, nonsexual kinds of love, where its presence would corrupt and destroy those more delicate types of love. I merely ask those who wish to do away with the prohibition of open homosexuality in the armed services to consider that the more than 1,100 flag and general officers who recently declared their support for the existing law were motivated, as they claim, by genuine concern for national security and not by bigotry. Wouldn't any refusal to do so be tantamount to -bigotry itself?

James Bowman, a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the author of Honor: A History (2006) and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture (2008).