Homosexuals in the Military

Mackubin T. Owens

February 1, 2010

In a February 3 Wall Street Journal op-ed, I argued that the current law banning military service by homosexuals ought to remain in place. I based my contention on the importance of non-sexual bonding as the glue of unit cohesion, which is an important contributor to military effectiveness. As expected, I received a great deal of feedback, some positive, some negative. I thought it might be useful to lay out the objections to my piece with my responses.

First, some have claimed that the studies indicating the importance of cohesion in war have been “discredited.” On the one hand, I am tired of academics who rarely have any military experience telling me and others who have actually led men in combat that unit cohesion is not that important. On the other hand, the only way they can get away with the claim is to redefine cohesion in such a way it loses all significance. A law office on K Street is in no way comparable to a military unit operating under the stress of combat.

Here’s how the 1992 report of the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces described cohesion: the relationship that develops in a unit or group in which 1) members share common values and experiences; 2) individuals in the group conform to group norms and behavior in order to ensure group survival and goals; 3) members lose their identity in favor of a group identity; 4) members focus on group activities and goals; 5) unit members become totally dependent on each other for the completion of their mission or survival; and 6) group members must meet all the standards of performance and behavior in order not to threaten group survival.

Of course, a number of people observed that my argument regarding the potential impact of open homosexuals on unit cohesion could just as well be applied to women. They are correct of course. Indeed, I first deployed my argument about eros vs. philia in 1993 to the issue of women in combat. And while many military specialties have been opened to women since I first wrote, service in ground combat still remains closed to women for exactly this reason.

Second, some argue that the integration of open homosexuals in the military is merely a manifestation of the quest for equal civil rights that began with African-Americans after World War II: according to this argument, lifting the ban against permitting military service by open homosexuals is analogous to President Truman’s executive order that racially integrated the military services. They echo the claim of James Carroll in a Boston Globe column some years ago: “today’s soldiers and sailors reluctant to serve shoulder to shoulder with homosexuals are the progeny of racist and sexist soldiers and sailors who were told to get over it or get out.”

But Truman’s order was motivated by concerns about military effectiveness, not civil rights. For a variety of reasons, segregated African-American units generally did not perform well on the battlefields of World War II. Truman’s actions were in response to military manpower experts who believed that integration would improve the military effectiveness of black soldiers.

In addition, many African-Americans take offense at the comparison between their struggle for equal civil rights and the quest by homosexuals to serve openly in the military. As Colin Powell noted in his memoirs, the reaction among African-American groups to the argument in 1993 linking gay rights and the civil rights movement was mixed. “The Congressional Black Caucus favored removing the ban on homosexuals in the armed services. But other leaders were telling me that they resented having the civil rights crusade hijacked by the gay community for its ends.”

Gen. Powell was not alone. Testifying before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on this issue on April 29, 1993, Lt. Gen. Calvin A. H. Waller, a highly-respected African-American military leader, responded to a query by the Chairman, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA) concerning whether he agreed with equating homosexual rights and civil rights for racial minorities. Waller replied, “We are talking about the lifestyle or the sexuality of a person who wants to be open with their sexuality or with their lifestyle into a force or into the Armed Forces where I think that is detrimental to readiness and to good law and order and discipline.” Waller further commented that he strongly disagreed with the racial analogy. “I am opposed to that. I do not like that analogy. I do not think it is the same in any respect.”

The late Charles Moskos, testifying on the same day, suggested that the black/white analogy vis-à-vis homosexuals/heterosexuals was less appropriate than the male/female analogy

While personal animosity to homosexuals has always been present and still exists, as a group they have never faced the organized legal obstacles that African-Americans did.

Third, commentators claim that homosexuals are victims of military “witch hunts.” The New York Times and the Washington Post suggest that homosexuals are being “drummed out” of the military on a regular basis. But the numbers don’t support this contention. In FY 2008, the last year for which figures are available, the Pentagon involuntarily separated 633 men and women under the ban. This hardly constitutes a witch hunt.

As Dr. Moskos pointed out in 1993, 80 percent of homosexuality-related discharges resulted from voluntary statements, a figure that has not changed. 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.”

While discussing this issue with my Naval War College seminar, a student related an anecdote that illustrates the problem. He was the executive officer of a ship about to make a six-month deployment. Over a period of weeks, a female sailor approached him with a number of reasons why she could not make the deployment. He rejected them and advised her that she would indeed deploy with her ship. Finally he received a call from the JAG advising him that she would not deploy because she had confessed to being gay.

Fourth, some commentators claimed that the ban on homosexuals spawns anti-gay violence. Exhibit one is the case of PFC. Barry Winchell, a homosexual soldier at Fort Campbell, Kentucky who was brutally murdered in 1999. Homosexual groups immediately portrayed the murder as an example of anti-homosexual bigotry run amuck in the Army. But in Paul Harvey’s formulation, “the rest of the story” is somewhat more complicated. It turns out that the murder was inspired by a “love triangle” involving Winchell, another soldier, and a transsexual performer in a Nashville gay bar who was in transition from male to female.

Fifth, correspondents observed that other Western countries have lifted their bans on open service by homosexuals without suffering adverse effects. But with the exception of the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, such militaries still discriminate, banning service in ground combat units and special operations forces. According to Dr. Moskos, “there is no country in Europe, much less Israel, that American advocates of gay rights would find a suitable model.”

Finally, critics of my piece conclude that those such as myself who make the argument that the ban on homosexual service in the military are simply bigots. This claim is similar to that of those who argue that opposition to President Obama’s policies is motivated by racism. I can’t speak for others who share my view, but in fact my late brother was homosexual. I got along fine with him and his circle of friends, all of whom were cognizant of my views. I am as opposed to bigotry as anyone. Homosexuals should and do possess the equal civil rights of their fellow citizens. But there is no “right” to serve in the military and in that case, military effectiveness should trump all other considerations.

Mackubin T. Owens is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center and a professor at the Naval War College. He is editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.