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An object lesson.

October 4, 2009, 8:35 am

It’s the time of the semester where nervous students are writing their first philosophy paper, and among my advice to them is the maxim to avoid the temptation to start an essay with any variation on the phrase “Since the dawn of time…” unless they’re actually talking about the dawn of time, which they won’t be, and I know, since I wrote the paper topics.  Why?  It’s a lazy habit, a turn of phrase meant to do nothing more than get the writerly wheels turning.

But it also makes your argument weaker, as this essay shows:

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.

Come on, Plato, don’t let me down.  Take it away, Phaedrus!

The beloved too, when he is found in any disgraceful situation, has the same feeling about his lover. And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger? The veriest coward would become an inspired hero, equal to the bravest, at such a time; Love would inspire him. That courage which, as Homer says, the god breathes into the souls of some heroes, Love of his own nature infuses into the lover.

Now, Phaedrus is not the brightest crayon in the box, as he is young and rather silly, but according to Plutarch, the idea that homosexual soldiers would be a braver, tightly bound fighting unit was taken seriously by people who read Plato.  The Sacred Band of Thebes was composed of 150 erastes-eramenos couples, and they were fierce enough to beat a Spartan force three times its size at Tegyra, and again at Leuctra, securing Theban independence from Sparta.  (It bears pointing out that the Spartans were probably not heterosexual enough for the contemporary American conservative either, but it’s cruel to spoil their enjoyment of 300.)

The Sacred Band was annihilated by the phalanxes of Philip II of Macedon, but then again, so was everyone else, eventually. The young Alexander broke through their lines; until that point, the Band had been thought to be invincible.

Let’s be clear that the worst thing about an essay that argues that gays could be good American soldiers except for the problem of them being gay is not that it gets the history wrong. (Via Sullivan, who makes the more appropriate response.)  But the assumption that early 21st century American conservative mores have been on the triumphant, manly, very very straight, winning side throughout all of human history since the dawn of man?  Not true.

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