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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Disobey The President: Transforming The Military In Historical Perspective

June 7, 2010, 1:21 pm

We move forward into a summer of political negotiating that might end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the Clinton-era policy that lifted the ban on gays in the military, provided said gays pretend to be straight (and, as an ironic touch, created a phrase popular among the sexually dishonest who claim to be in sophisticated open relationships when actually they are just cheating like everyone else.) Policy makers and GLBT lobbyists wishing to lift the ban might usefully consult Beth Bailey’s America’s Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force (Harvard, 2009) as they consider how to present what is perceived by many to be an unprecedented alteration in the United States Armed Forces. As Bailey observes, the transition from the draft to an all-volunteer Army was a political decision made by the Nixon administration in 1970 that military brass resisted vigorously despite what they perceived as the poor quality of the draftees they were receiving. Appealing for volunteers to what the Army viewed as a narcissistic and indulgent youth culture, rather than relying on compulsory service and the traditional disciplinary measures designed to subdue individuality, was a system that had been in place since World War II. Despite what many perceived as the difficulties of instilling good discipline in unwilling warriors, and an Army War College study that argued the draft was unsustainable, the Army was comfortable with the system it knew.

Bailey reminds us how dramatic the changes designed to recruit an all-volunteer force were at the time: allowing common soldiers to grow their hair, decorate their rooms with psychedelic posters, live off-base with their families, hiring contractors to cook and clean, and allowing the consumption of beer on post all seemed to signal Armageddon to traditionalists in the 1970s. It is not insignificant, I think that it was in the 1970s that gay civil rights activists imagined that the bars to GLBT service passed during the Truman administration might fall in such a liberalized atmosphere. But this goal was eclipsed, first by Reagan’s DOD Directive 1332.14 stating that homosexuality was “incompatible with military service,” and then by the mobilization of gay activism to force the federal government to act in the AIDS crisis.

One critical thread that runs throughout the book is fear that the bodies who would find the volunteer military attractive would be ungovernable under any conditions, a conversation that centered primarily on race. Would the Army be more Black as it designed its appeal around employment and educational opportunities that would be attractive to the motivated poor? Or could the Army potentially be less Black — as those who were either afraid to arm and train African-American men at the height of the Black Power movement, or who saw the failures of Vietnam as the failures of Black draftees — hoped. This is important because it demonstrates that integration of the military had, over two decades, not eliminated racism (although no one advocated a return to segregation); and that military policy was perceived as critically linked to the social and political fabric of the nation, where conversations about Black exploitation vied with demands for Black opportunity. It also illustrates the tendency to elevate concerns about the failures of the common soldier to perform are not infrequently elevated over more appropriate concerns that would focus on leadership, command, training and the political viability of a wartime mission that is faltering.

Two other things strike me here, both related to the comparison that is often made between ending DADT and racial desegregation in the military, initiated in 1951 three years after Harry S Truman’s Executive Order 9981. Black officers, most notably Colin Powell, have resisted this comparison, a stance that has been viewed as purely homophobic by gay activists. And while it is a homophobic stance, what was less well explained during the 1993 debate that resulted in DADT was the extraordinary difficulty of implementing racial integration and dismantling racism in the services, a project that continues to this day. I repeat: desegregation was not even initiated until three years after Truman’s order, and race was an extremely contentious policy matter two decades later (as Bailey points out graphically in America’s Army.) Was the compromise of DADT — which is no different from a ban from the point of anyone who is queer — actually a compromise after all, rather than a political punt by the Clinton administration? This might be worth taking a closer look at.

Secondly, to avoid getting stuck on the comparison between African-American civil rights and GLBT civil rights (a difficult conversation that inevitably becomes a distraction) Congressional and GLBT advocates might wish to focus instead on the difficulties of transitioning to an all-volunteer force in the 1970s, and the fact that they were overcome. In 1970, when Nixon proposed this shift, officers and noncoms almost uniformly believed that accommodating and encouraging individualism in daily military life (not to mention expanding the number of women in the service) would be a threat to good order. We see the same issues arising as are being addressed today: the capacity to ready troops for battle, and that altering the gender order would undermine structures of authority and the unquestioned obedience necessary to success in field operations.

What should be pointed out is that, not only was this transformation successful over time, but that it was also initiated in the midst of a long, difficult and inconclusive war. And yet, because this transition was ordered by the President, General William Westmoreland put the full weight of his authority behind it. Although, as Bailey writes, Westmoreland shared many of the reservations common among all the officers he spoke to on October 13 1970 at the Army Commanders Conference, he also believed that it was his –and their — job to make the transition work if the President so desired it. As Bailey writes, Westmoreland “believed he must carry out the orders of his commander in chief to the best of his ability. And that day, he declared an end to debate. ‘The decision has been made,’ he said. ‘I expect your full support.’” (51) And he got it.

So what’s the lesson here? All institutional transformations are difficult. Achieving domestic partner benefits has not eliminated homophobia in the academy, and white people — even when they are gay — often are the direct beneficiaries of racism and class prejudice. Making comparisons between oppressions, in other words, invariably leads us into murky and difficult territory, even if the moral point is similar. But we can, in fact, point to specific moments in which limitations on military service have been lifted, and draw two conclusions. The first is that the successful outcome of that transformation, by which I mean the full integration of the group into military service in a way that is perceived as non-problematic, will come many years down the road. As Bailey notes in a later chapter, the idea that an all-volunteer Army might be more black was still distressing in the 1970s to numerous constituencies, some conservative and some liberal, twenty years after integration had commenced. The second is that the mili
tary both resists change to its practices and has, perhaps, the capacity to effect change better than any other American institution, because of its culture of obedience.

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