Military Ethos and the Politics of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Mackubin T. Owens

February 1, 2000

On December 11, President Bill Clinton issued an unprecedented public rebuke of the American military. Without prior warning or consultation, the commander-in-chief claimed in a CBS News radio interview that the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuals was not being implemented “as the leaders of our military … in 1993 pledged to implement it.” By suggesting that military commanders have twisted the policy into an anti-homosexual instrument, President Clinton has undermined the moral authority of commanders at all levels, ultimately making it more difficult for them to carry out this very difficult compromise, one that he accepted at the behest of a Democratic-controlled Congress seven years ago.

All of us, especially the commissioned and non-commissioned officers who have been striving to comply with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, despite its difficulties, are entitled to ask: why has it taken the president seven years to identify the alleged flaws in the policy? And if he believes there are flaws, why didn’t he require the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to conduct a formal review, rather than gratuitously reprimand the US military as an institution in a public forum?

On the one hand, the president’s critics answer that, as is his usual practice, Mr. Clinton is subordinating an issue of national security—military effectiveness—to the dictates of short-term political expediency: helping his wife with a core Democratic constituency in her New York Senate race. Mrs. Clinton advocates a change in policy that would permit homosexuals to serve openly in the military.

On the other hand, Mr. Clinton claims to be acting according to the most high-minded principles. The president and his defenders claim he was moved by the brutal murder of PFC Barry Winchell, a homosexual soldier at Fort Campbell, Kentucky last summer.

But the core of the president’s public criticism is that the military has violated the spirit of the compromise by actively seeking out and discharging homosexuals. “The original intent,” said the president during the radio interview, “was that people would not be rooted out, that they would not be questioned … If they didn’t violate the code of conduct (sic) and they didn’t tell,” they wouldn’t be subjected to harassment.

In an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal shortly after the president’s interview, Professor Charles Moskos of Northwestern University, dean of American military sociologists and the primary architect of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, questioned the assumptions underlying Mr. Clinton’s remarks. Regarding the murder of PFC Winchell, Mr. Moskos asked, “had [he] been openly gay, would his fellow soldiers have been more restrained? Indeed, opponents of homosexuals in the military easily could use the murder to argue that the military should return to its traditional policy of asking one’s sexual orientation and discharging anyone even suspected of being homosexual.”

What about the increase in the number of discharges of homosexuals? It is true that such discharges have nearly doubled—from 617 in 1994 to 1145 in 1998. But as Mr. Moskos points out, while the number of discharges for homosexual “acts” actually has declined over this period, 80 percent of homosexuality-related discharges are the result of voluntary statements. Furthermore, almost all discharges for homosexuality occur in the first term of enlistment, and more than half in the first year.

The fact that so many of those who voluntarily claim to be homosexuals do so early in their enlistment is an important point. As Gen. Carl Mundy, former Commandant of the Marine Corps observed, this “is a very demanding period during which it is not uncommon for those who are not equal to the challenge of military life to seek opportunities for release from the service. A claim to be homosexual, whether factual or not, provides such an opportunity.” These figures call into question the claim that the increase in discharges of homosexuals is due to the actions of overzealous commanders.

As Professor Moskos acknowledges, there are foolish reasons for excluding homosexuals from the armed forces, but that does not mean we should ignore the good ones. And the most important one is expressed in the statute passed by the same Democratic Congress in 1993 that gave us “don’t ask, don’t tell”— homosexuality is incompatible with military service. Open homosexuality undermines the military ethos upon which success in war ultimately depends.

Winning the nation’s wars is the military’s functional imperative. Indeed, it is the only reason for a liberal society to maintain a military organization. War is terror. War is confusion. War is characterized by chance, uncertainty, and friction. The military’s ethos constitutes an evolutionary response to these factors—an attempt to minimize their impact.

To achieve success on the battlefield, military organizations must overcome the paralyzing effects of fear on the individual soldier. Accordingly, the military stresses such martial virtues as courage, both physical and moral, a sense of honor and duty, discipline, a professional code of conduct, and loyalty, and places a premium on such factors as unit cohesion and morale.

The glue of the military ethos is what the Greeks called philia—friendship, comradeship, or brotherly love. Philia, the bond among disparate individuals who have nothing in common but facing death and misery together, is the source of the unit cohesion that most research has shown to be critical to battlefield success.

The importance of philia is described by J. Glen Gray in The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle: “Numberless soldiers have died, more or less willingly, not for country or honor or religious faith or for any other abstract good, but because they realized that by fleeing their posts and rescuing themselves, they would expose their companions to greater danger.

“Such loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale. The commander who can preserve and strengthen it knows that all other physical and psychological factors are little in comparison. The feeling of loyalty, it is clear, is the result, not the cause, of comradeship. Comrades are loyal to each other spontaneously and without any need for reasons.”

Philia depends on fairness and the absence of favoritism. In the military environment, fairness is crucial. Indeed, it is the coin of the realm. The military ethos is dependent on everyone’s understanding that the criteria for allocating danger and recognition, both positive (promotion, awards, etc.) and negative (non-judicial punishment, courts-martial, etc.), are essentially objective. Favoritism and double standards are deadly to philia and its associated phenomena—cohesion, morale, and discipline—elements of the military ethos that are absolutely critical to the success of a military organization.

The presence of open homosexuals in the close confines of ships or military units opens the possibility that eros will be unleashed into an environment based on philia, creating friction and corroding the very source of military excellence itself. It does so by undermining the non-sexual bonding essential to unit cohesion as described by Gray.

For unlike philia, eros is sexual, and therefore individual and exclusive. Eros manifests itself as sexual competition, protectiveness, and favoritism, all of which undermine order, discipline, and morale. As James Webb, the best-selling novelist and former Secretary of the Navy has observed, “there is no greater or more natural bias than that of an individual toward a beloved. And few emotions are more powerful, or more distracting, than those surrounding the pursuit of, competition for, or the breaking off of amorous relationships.”

The destructive impact of such relationships on unit cohesion can be denied only ideologues. Does a superior order his or her beloved into danger? If he or she demonstrates favoritism, what is the consequence for unit morale and discipline? What happens when jealousy rears its head? These are questions of life and death and help to explain why open homosexuality and homosexual behavior traditionally have been considered incompatible with military service.

Recently, a number of policy analysts and scholars have raised the specter of a growing “gap” between the US military and the society it is sworn to protect. A new scholarly study confirms that there is a growing divergence between the attitudes of the military and a civilian elite that largely has forsaken the military in the all-volunteer era. This “participation” gap underlies Mr. Clinton’s remarks regarding “don’t ask, don’t tell” and adumbrates a threat to the long-term health of the Republic.

All too often, the American civilian elite sees the military ethos not as something that contributes to military effectiveness, but as a problem to be eradicated in the name of multiculturalism, sexual politics, and the politics of “sexual orientation.” At a minimum, elite opinion contends that the military is obligated to adapt to contemporary liberal values, patterns of behavior, and social mores no matter how adversely they might affect the military’s ability to carry out its functional imperative. The president’s remarks illustrate the danger of the participation gap—the propensity of the American civilian elite, ignorant of the requirements of military ethos, to subordinate the military’s functional imperative to a societal one at the cost of military effectiveness.

Mackubin T. Owens is Professor of Strategy and Force Planning at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island and an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.