With forces aligning in favor of repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that has had untold economic and human cost on the military, into the breach steps former Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill A. McPeak. McPeak, who served in that role in the early 1990’s (during the adoption of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy), has an op-ed in today’s NY Times where he ends up revealing more about his own biases than anything else.
There are so many weaknesses in McPeak’s argument that it would take more space and time than I can give to deconstruct them all. But the biggest problem is McPeak’s unexamined assumption that homosexuality is a kind of weakness, disability, or inherently disqualifying condition. Here he is on military fitness and exclusions:
The services exclude, without challenge, many categories of prospective entrants. People cannot serve in uniform if they are too old or too young, too fat or too thin, too tall or too short, disabled, not sufficiently educated and so on.
Note that each of the named exclusions, whatever their merits, focuses on something about the individual that renders him or her unfit for military service. The argument against allowing gays to serve openly in the military, though, has been pitched — even by McPeak, in this same op-ed — as a question of unit cohesion. So here McPeak is making a different kind of argument — that gays are unfit to serve, not because of “unit cohesion, but because of something wrong with them. Worse, he doesn’t acknowledge that he’s shifting ground here. (He doesn’t tell, and hopes that the reader doesn’t ask.) Further evidence of this view of gays as somehow weak or inferior comes at the very end of the piece:
I do not see how permitting open homosexuality in the [military] enhances their prospects of success in battle. Indeed, I believe repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” will weaken the warrior culture at a time when we have a fight on our hands.
Note the subtle elision of the unit cohesion and personal weakness claims here. “Gay men in combat will weaken the warrior culture” is a still-effective, virulently homophobic, view of gay men as less than fully male in a gender-stereotyped way. It’s clear that McPeak’s real problem with gays in the military is that it makes people like him uncomfortable. Indeed, he makes that point explicitly:
Thus allowing an openly gay presence in ranks will be very difficult until we have committed leadership for it. I certainly had trouble figuring out how to provide such leadership in 1993. While I believed all people are created equal, I did not believe such equality extended to all ideas or all cultures. And since I didn’t know how to advocate the assimilation of this particular form of diversity, I saw no way to prevent it from undermining unit cohesion.
Twenty-first century to General McPeak: “Homosexuality isn’t an ‘idea’ or a ‘culture.'” It’s a basic orientation, a vital part of one’s humanity. In fact, McPeak doesn’t believe that all people are created equal. Anyone who doesn’t understand that one’s sexual orientation is fissured deeply into the core can’t possibly be an advocate for assimilation, so it’s no surprise that McPeak “didn’t know how to advocate” for “this particular form of diversity.” But that’s no excuse for the military’s throwing up its hands. No one is suggesting that the integration of openly gay and lesbian soldiers will be seamless, any more than the integration of female soldiers has been. But, like any change to any institution, it can and must be managed, just as racial integration was (better, I hope).
Speaking of the integration of women, it’s clear that McPeak is discussing gay men, not lesbians. That’s because avoids saying anything about women in the military. Do lesbians undermine the “warrior culture” of female soldiers? Or are the women not warriors? Should lesbians be permitted to serve, even if gay men aren’t? McPeak, by the logic of his own argument, wouldn’t have a problem with this gay/lesbian division, because the military can justify exclusions and discriminations that wouldn’t be tolerated in civil society. So he avoids the topic altogether.
Then there’s the biggest elephant in the room: The plain fact that other nations, including countries whose militaries we serve alongside, like Britain, do allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly. If these population-wide, natural experiments aren’t applicable to the U.S. military, McPeak at least has an obligation to explain why. Instead, there’s only silence, broken only by the insistent murmur of homophobia (in the truest sense of that word) that misinforms this exercise in harmful sophistry.