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What’s Wrong With America’s Military?

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Gay men and women serve openly in the Canadian military. They serve openly in the British military. They serve openly in the Australian military, the Israeli military, the Brazilian military, the Spanish military, the South African military - they serve openly in thirty-one countries around the world. (Thirty-two if you count Russia, where only ‘well adjusted’ homosexuals are allowed to serve, but one hopes that the heterosexual recruits are also ‘well adjusted’.) In all of these countries, from Lithuania to Argentina, the military personnel are disciplined enough to conduct themselves with utmost professionalism.

So what’s wrong with the US military? Why is it so inferior? The US spends more than any other country on its armed forces. It boasts the greatest military strength in the world. It prides itself on being the best in the world. So why is the US military only the 33rd most disciplined?

This is not my judgement, mind you. This is the judgement of the defenders of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, who don’t think the US can be held to meet the expectation set by those other countries. It’s the judgement of California congressman Duncan D Hunter, a former US marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, who told NPR that repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell would be “bad for the cohesiveness and the unity in the military, especially those that are in close combat”. It’s the judgement of Hunter’s colleague ‘Buck’ McKeon, who wants evidence that repeal “would not degrade wartime military readiness”. It’s the judgement of Senator John McCain, who is concerned about the impact of repeal on the “readiness and effectiveness of the military”. It’s a judgement echoed by Bill Kristol, the conservative columnist and star of City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, who is intitimidated by the “organizational complexity” of repeal.

Estonia dealt with the “organizational complexity” of allowing gays the equal right to get shot at in service to their country. Why isn’t the US up to the task? Where is the rigour? Where is the commitment? What’s wrong with the US military?

Crankypants McCain is so unsure of the abilities of the men and women in the forces that he used to serve in that he’s famously flip-flopped on his commitment to follow the military leadership on the policy. Only four years ago, he said, “the day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, ‘Senator, we ought to change the policy,’ then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it”. Now that he faces a more conservative tea-bagger opponent in his upcoming Arizona primary, the senator is no longer persuaded by the opinions of either the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael McMullen, or the retired chairman who originated the policy, Colin Powell, both of whom have said, ‘Senator, we ought to change the policy’.

Representative Hunter (who is quite the pretty young thing) told Wolf Blitzer that the difference between the US and other countries - countries that the US serves and fights alongside - is that “their military is much smaller than ours, it’s much more specialized”. The US military is too big for cohesion, readiness, effectiveness. That’s why they keep shooting their own allies.

Wolf pointed out that Israel faces some quite significant military challenges of its own. “[B]ut the Israelis have mandatory service,” said Hunter. “So in Israel, it doesn’t matter if you’d like it or not.” So in Israel they have to tolerate gays in the military, and that means… that the problem… just goes away.

To be fair to Rep Hunter, what he’s really saying is that recruits will be scared away if they know there are gays in the military. This didn’t happen in any of these other countries, but maybe Rep Hunter believes that Americans are less patriotic than people in other countries? Maybe Rep Hunter thinks that America isn’t a very good country, and its citizens aren’t proud of it the way that, say, Norwegians are proud of their country? (I think it’s Norway.) Maybe Americans know that their military isn’t very good, so they’re looking for any excuse not to be part of it?

US forces already serve alongside allies that allow gays to serve openly, of course, and Rep Hunter was in Afghanistan with NATO, so he may already have served alongside gay soldiers, but he claims otherwise. “I didn’t run into any open homosexual men or women with … the Brits, Canadians, Germans, French, the other people that I served with over there.” How would he know? Don’t Americans think that all Continentals are a little bit gay? And that Canadian practically means ‘gay American’? But, as I said, Duncan D Hunter is rather pretty, with quite the loveliest blue eyes, and anyway he was in the Marines, so, he’d know.

Except, the policy he seeks to defend is based on the presumption that he wouldn’t know. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell does not bar gay men and women from serving. It just bars them from pursuing or engaging in homosexual behaviour while in service - gays have to remain celibate, on duty or off, in uniform or out of it, from the day they sign up until the day they are discharged.

Gays don’t have to not be gay. Plenty of men and women in the US military are gay, and Rep Hunter served right alongside them in Afghanistan, and he didn’t know. And if the ban were lifted, he still probably wouldn’t know. First of all, he probably wasn’t the most observant guy in the corps. Second, whether gay or straight, you can’t go around shagging your fellow soldiers when you’re on duty. There’s a whole other set of rules against that. As strapping as he is, Rep Hunter had no reason to believe he’d know he was serving alongside homos, unless he thinks they all wear floral camo. Or little pink triangles.

Gays and lesbians serve in the US military today. Having them do so with honesty, honour and integrity should not be a threat to operational efficiency. Not in any military organisation of any worth, anyway. So what’s wrong with America’s military? Why isn’t it as good as Peru’s?

duncan_marines2Duncan D Hunter (right). Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Mind If I Do.

A President, Like Any Other

Monday, June 15th, 2009

Barack Obama has never impressed on the subject of gay rights. He made a few encouraging promises, and it was refreshing to hear him mention gays and lesbians in his speeches, but despite claiming that he is a “fierce advocate” for gay rights, he has no record of substance, and on the campaign trail he made it clear that he supported civil unions rather than same-sex marriage - a separate-but-equal position that was shared by the opposition ticket. I think the widely held hope was that this was just politics; Obama was being cautious on the campaign trail, but he would show more social liberalism in office.

Then came the inauguration, and Obamas’ choice of Reverend Rick Warren - who had then only recently compared homosexuality to incest and bestiality - to lead the inaugural prayer. For many of us that choice rang alarm bells - how could the hope-and-change candidate be so tone deaf as to choose a bigot to represent him as the nation’s pastor? - but it was Obama’s first day on the job, and to ring that alarm bell too loudly was to be off-message. The gays would not be allowed to ruin this historic moment for everyone else.

The alarm bell should have sounded louder.

In January, press secretary Robert Gibbs gave a one-word answer to the question of whether Obama would repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT); “Yes”. A couple of months later that seemed to become ‘maybe’ when the language on the White House website went from ‘repeal’ to ‘change’. In fact, Obama could have issued an executive order suspending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell as soon as he entered office, putting all investigations on hold until the law could be repealed. He did not do so, even at a time when polls show two-thirds of conservatives, and a majority of churchgoers, now support gays serving in the military. That was the second alarm bell.

Here’s the third. On Friday, the US Department of Justice filed a brief in support of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in response to a case challenging the act’s constitutionality. DOMA states that, “No state … needs to treat a relationship between persons of the same sex as a marriage, even if the relationship is considered a marriage in another state”, and, “The federal government may not treat same-sex relationships as marriages for any purpose, even if concluded or recognized by one of the states”.

There is some debate about whether or not the Department of Justice was obliged to defend DOMA at all, let alone insist that it was constitutional. Certainly, the last four presidents have all filed briefs in opposition to existing laws, in line with their policy platforms. Perhaps Obama doesn’t want to govern that way, and is determined to uphold existing laws until they can be overturned through the proper channels. Certainly that’s his official position on why he hasn’t ended DADT. In contrast to his predecessor, he’s apparently working to limit the executive power of the president.

But even if Obama felt that the DoJ had to defend DOMA, the language of the brief is erroneous, disingenuous, and gratuitously offensive. It echoes Michael Steele’s disgraceful notion that withholding rights is good because it saves the government money, even though gay Americans pay the same taxes as everyone else. It implies that limiting marriage rights to heterosexual couples is necessary to protect ‘traditional’ marriage.

It dredges up the old bigot’s saw that says gays already have the same rights as everyone else - to marry someone of the opposite sex. It argues that homosexuals should not be deemed a minority class deserving of special protection from the courts. It goes so far as to undermine the arguments that helped end restrictions on interracial marriage. Perhaps most damaging of all, it enshrines the view that same-sex marriage cannot be considered a fundamental right. Then, for good measure, it equates same-sex marriage to incest and statutory rape.

This is the Obama position. This is the position of the ‘change’ administration. These are all familiar arguments that we expect to hear from bigots opposed to gay equality, but coming from Barack Obama, this is devastating.

As with DADT, Obama initially pledged that he would repeal DOMA, which he called “abhorrent”, but as with DADT, that pledge disappeared from his website in May. With this brief, Obama has now made the legal landscape of the United States more hostile to gay rights. He is working backwards. Far from being a fierce advocate, Obama now appears to be a threat to gay rights.

There is still time for this to change. There is still time for Obama to keep all of his promises to the gay community. What there is not, any longer, is hope that he will. Now the presumption for anyone who supports gay equality is that Obama is the opposition, and he will have to be fought against rather than worked with. Obama has no empathy for gay rights. It turns out that what he said on the campaign trail was just politics, but he wasn’t hiding his social liberalism; he was masking his social conservatism. On the civil rights issue of our age, Barack Obama is our villain.

Barack Obama Doesn’t Care About Gay People

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

Dan Choi is one of my new favourite people. A first lieutenant and infantry platoon leader with the New York National Guard, Choi recently came out as gay on The Rachel Maddow Show. Choi is a founder and spokesman for Knights Out, an organisation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender US military academy alumni dedicated to fighting Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and he knew that by coming out on TV - by ‘telling’ - he would risk getting kicked out of the military.

Last week he got the letter telling him this was exactly what was happening. By saying he was gay, he had engaged in ‘homosexual behaviour’ and would be dismissed from service. Dan Choi went back on the Maddow show to say how outraged and offended he was. But of course, he expected it. And I suspect he wanted it. I think Dan Choi is attempting a very deliberate and courageous gambit; he is making himself the public face of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell debacle.

Choi is a West Point graduate, an infantry officer, an Iraq veteran and an Arabic linguist. He is proud and keen to serve. He was already out to the men and women he served alongside, to no detriment to ‘unit cohesion’ (the bogus bogeyman that provides the sole justification for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell). He’s being drummed out of the military for the weakest, silliest of reasons; because of something he said. Because of something he said about himself.

danchoi

There’s no scandal here. He did not behave in a disgraceful way. He did not do anything inappropriate or sexual while serving. Dan Choi is a dedicated serviceman. He is intelligent, eloquent and informed, and he has skills that are of tremendous value to the US military. He is being forced out of the military because he said, “I am gay”. That places the issue front and centre, with the perfect spokesman at its fore. No-one could look at a man like Dan Choi and seriously believe that the US military is better off without him than it is with him.

I hope that Dan Choi’s case will force the Obama administration to take action. It’s a shame that the Obama administration needs to be forced, but it’s increasingly evident that it does. Barack Obama is not living up to his claim that he is a “fierce advocate” for gay rights. He has done nothing about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, nothing about the Defense of Marriage Act, nothing about the Matthew Shepard act; he hasn’t made any attempt to repeal bans on gay adoption or to expand health-care benefits to same-sex couples, and he’s been conspicuously quiet on the advances in marriage equality in Iowa, Vermont and Maine. Obama’s single greatest contribution to the most pressing civil rights issue of his day has been to invite homophobic pastor Rick Warren to lead the nation in prayer at his inauguration.

Barack Obama doesn’t care about gay people. The impression that I get is that his position on gay rights is entirely political, not personal; he talks the talk to stay on-side with his core constituency, but he does not have any empathy for, or interest in, gay rights.

I don’t think he’s homophobic - not at all - but I do think that he’s ignorant, blinkered and tin-eared when it comes to this topic. I suspect that, like a lot of otherwise liberal people, he does not really grasp the extent to which gays still feel maligned and marginalised, and he does not see gay equality as belonging in the same league as racial equality or gender equality - despite that inconvenient word, ‘equality’.

It does not escape my notice that Barack Obama has had a lot on his plate during his first four months in office, and the standard defence offered of Obama’s inaction is that he has two wars and a financial crisis to deal with; gay rights are not - and should not be - a priority.

Nonsense. The Obama administration can do more than one thing at once, and civil rights ought always to be a priority. Civil rights are not something you wait to address when it’s convenient. The world does not wait, and minorities should not be asked to wait. On the contrary; at a time when people are worried about real issues, like keeping their job or keeping their house, they don’t have the luxury to indulge themselves in reactionary fights against things that have no actual bearing on their lives. We are at the flashpoint now. The time to act is now.

It would take a stroke of the pen. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell can only be overturned by Congress, but the President can suspend all investigations and prosecutions by executive order while Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is reviewed, and that would effectively put an end to it. At a time of war, the president can stop the American military from haemorrhaging people like Dan Choi who want to serve, with a stroke of his pen.

Obama has not made this minimal effort. He has not found the time for it.

Before he left office, George W Bush took steps to lift the ban on people with HIV entering the United States. It was one of the only good things he ever did. In his rush to undo all of Bush’s farewell gestures, Obama undid this one as well. He kept the travel ban in place, and he did it with a stroke of his pen. He found the time for that.

When elected, Barack Obama made a pledge to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Now the language from the Obama administration is about ‘changing’ Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, not repealing it. The word from his national security adviser, General James Jones, is, “I don’t know” if the administation will overturn Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Not only is Obama doing nothing; he’s backpedalling.

Barack Obama doesn’t care about gay people.

Hopefully people like Lieutenant Dan Choi can make him care.