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Don't Repeal "Don't Ask/Don't Tell"

Don't sacrifice unit cohesion for a social experiment.

12:00 AM, Jun 15, 2010 • By STUART KOEHL
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American soldiers in battle don’t fight for what some president says on TV, they don’t fight for mom, apple pie or the American flag, they fight for one another.
—Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, U.S. Army, We Were Soldiers Once, and Young 

Don't Repeal "Don't Ask/Don't Tell"

On May 27, 2010, the House of Representatives voted to repeal the so-called “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” (DADT) law of 1993 that, while leaving intact the military’s ban on homosexuals serving in uniform, prohibits the military from inquiring into the sexual preferences of military personnel or requiring them to answer questions about it. The Senate is expected to follow suit in coming weeks, though the public dissent by the chiefs of the individual Armed Services in opposition to Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shows how contentious the issue remains. Just a month earlier, the Navy announced that it would allow women to serve on submarines, further eroding the military’s traditional prohibition on women to fill combat roles. 

Both issues—women in combat and gays in the military—are different manifestations of a single problem: the failure of America’s political leadership to understand the factors that motivate men to fight in battle and to continue fighting under the most horrific conditions—what professionals call “combat effectiveness” and “unit cohesion” respectively. In all the discussions of the issue, these terms seldom come up; when they do, it is only to be dismissed out of hand by those who wish to see all military positions opened to both women and homosexuals.

Those who have never served in combat have no idea what it is like. The most graphic books and movies do not even scratch the surface.  Take the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, amplified by an order of magnitude, plus the smell of blood, vomit, excrement, explosives and burning vehicles would still not be sufficient. After more than thirty years investigating the experience of men in battle, I don’t even pretend to understand it as well as a soldier who has been through just one firefight.  This is why combat veterans are so reluctant to speak of their wartime deeds—civilians, and even rear-echelon military types, lack the frame of reference that would make understanding possible. 

Most people think men fight in war for patriotism, or abstraction like democracy, freedom or “the revolution.”  But this is incorrect. Men enlist for such reasons, but they do not explain why men fight, and more importantly, why they keep fighting and do not simply run away at the first opportunity.  As the French philosophe Montesquieu noted, “A rational army would run away”; i.e., war is so terrible no one in his right mind would choose to fight. 

Until the advent of modern warfare, men were held in the ranks by “external” discipline.  Fighting in close formations, under the watchful eyes of their officers, it was difficult to shirk or to flee.  The tactics of the time also meant survival depended on staying in ranks, while the closeness of the formation itself lent psychological support to the individual soldier.  But intelligent commanders found other ways to bolster morale, including smart uniforms, distinctions on regimental flags, and shiny medals.

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