May 31, 2010
Early in the first Clinton Administration when senior military officers were resisting the expressed desires of their Commander-in-Chief (for reasons they considered entirely proper) regarding gays in the military I had an unusual experience. The policy known as ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ was on the table but not yet passed by congress and I was running my usual series of enquirers’ classes which culminated in a retreat. On the retreat I was able to introduce two people who had met previously but had no reason to know each others stories. One was a colonel in the air force who was to be responsible for overseeing the implementation of any policy that came out of the debate. He did not like anything much that made it possible for homosexual men and women to serve, but was more concerned about how he was going to be fair to all parties. He raised many of the same concerns that are being raised about implementation today: housing policy, bathrooms and the like. He was determined to do a good job in spite of his misgivings. The other was a Captain in naval Intelligence who had admitted during a routine review of her security clearance that she had entered into a relationship with another woman and had been discharged from the Navy within something like a week of her interview. All this was going on during the eight or nine weeks of those classes. The Colonel credits the former Captain with helping him come to terms with the work he had to do and which he began to conceive as ministry.
I recently received an email from a friend who was taking issue with a posting from March 6 in which I suggested that the published opinions of Retired U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, Merrill A. McPeak qualified him as a ‘dinosaur’. He took issue with me on two points relevant to the current debate in congress. He read my comment in reference to McPeak about a “tired old unsubstantiated point about ‘unit cohesion’ on the battlefield” as belittling. My correspondent pointed out to me that I had not been in a battlefront unit and suggested that many in the military and in wider society are “naturally very uncomfortable in the intimate proximity of a military in the field with those that they fear and believe look at them with other than disinterest”. As a letter in the New York Times from yesterday points out, there has been little or no problem integrating open gay and lesbian service members in the forces of Israel, Great Britain or Australia. I have no doubt that the same services who have done such a fine job of integrating white and black members into cohesive units can do a similar job when they get their minds around the reality that the enemy here is prejudice not homosexuality.
My correspondent’s second point was my “apparent willingness, encouragement even, to place upon our soldiers, already under heavy stress (think PTSD) and daily risking their lives—to protect our freedoms, additional stress…” He says “perhaps you could find a more appropriate target to serve as an environment to attempt bringing about forced social change.” He is concerned about being forced into change by the government and ‘social engineering’ suggesting that if such change is good it will come about gradually in society. He recognizes that such a view poses a problem of an “imposition upon some service members who happen to be homosexual”.
I am unmoved by the ‘not during wartime’ argument (while I am concerned for the health and safety of our troops). I’m quite sure that clever Generals can come up with an implementation plan that does not put front line troops in danger from each other. I’m also aware from published reports that an unusual number of those who have been discharged under the current policy are Arabic translators and that their loss from service poses a wartime challenge of serious understaffing in a critical area. I do not think of this as ‘forced social change’ as much as I see it as addressing a fundamental weakness in our armed forces in today’s world. Prejudice, enshrined in law or policy, always weakens a country. Look at the governmental chaos in Nigeria, while an Anglican Primate urges that the country leave the UN because of its ‘support of homosexuality’. My correspondent’s arguments are fine if we are still unsure about whether or not gay and lesbian people should be objects of prejudice, and outdated and morally wrong if we believe that they should not be asked to bear an “imposition” for the sake of a capable and society shaping institution that would prefer not to have to juggle one more challenging task at the moment. I am glad that congress appears to recognize this tension while giving military leaders considerable respect and leeway in the implementation of a change in official policy.
On this day I join with all those who honor and pray for men and women who have given their lives in the service of the freedoms that we enjoy in this country and pray that those freedoms and their attendant privileges and responsibilities may be extended to all the people of this land as a beacon of hope for others.