American policy on gays in the military has been a self inflicted wound for years now. The loss of Arabic (and Farsi) language specialists at just this moment in our strategic history was an own goal if ever there was one. But the firing of General Stanley McChrystal has brought into sharp relief another truth about the chicken hawk quality of arguments against an end to the discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” farce.
Marc Ambinder, continuing in a really sterling transformation of his work from that of being a villager in training to a serious, independent reporter, wrote about the McChrystal connection and the implications of military reality (and or closeness or distance to the sharp end) on assessments of the ability for gays to perform in the armed forces (and for those forces to perform with gays openly in their ranks).
(I’ve harshly criticized Ambinder in the past, and stopped reading him after what was for me one too many retellings of conventional wisdom; picking up on cues from the folks at Balloon Juice who are much more conscientious than I in following folks through their twists and turns, I’ve started up again, and it is as if there is a whole new Marc reporting, rather than retelling what his sources feed him. To be acknowledged and encouraged.)
The short form of Ambinder’s story is that (a) McChrystal is genuinely a social liberal, untroubled by (among other things) gays in the military, and that (b) the special forces he used to command are much more focused on the job that their fellow soldiers, gay or straight, actually do than on who they happen to sleep with. Money quote:
As one former member of a special missions unit put it to me recently, “It’s really about competence. If you’re competent, it doesn’t matter who you are.” And then, switching instantly from an analytical posture to a machismo mode, he said, “If a guy saves my ass, he sure as hell can look at it.”
Exactly so. The folks who worry most about gays in the military are chickenhawks, those who never get close to the real work of an army: fighting the enemy, supporting your comrades.*
This struck home in a deep way recently as I helped my family mourn the death of the senior surviving male member of our parent’s generation, my beloved and much missed Uncle David, who, among much else in a life well-lived, served as a career officer in the Royal Artillery, fighting the United Kingdom’s wars from 1943 to the early nineteen sixties, retiring at the rank of Major and having served as a battery commander.
Long ago, in the early eighties, I visited David after I’d finished my college degree, hanging out mostly. For some reason the issue of gays in the military came up (maybe the Dutch had just opened up their ranks — I don’t really recall).
David surprised me. He was, after all, an Eton-educated former career officer (and the son of a Colonel) — not obviously the sort of person who would readily dissent from what remained then the British military norm.
What came next was another in a long series of lessons in the risks of assuming individual qualities from group characteristics. David told me two things, one an observation in principle and the other a specific story, both with the same point.
Principle first: David told me that his objection to gays in the military had been based on the notion that the potential for relationships to form between different ranks in the same units raised the possibility that a commander would be faced with an impossible command dilemma if he had to assign hazardous or likely fatal tasks to members of the unit.
But, he said, once women were admitted to the military, that objection failed…or rather it seemed that the military had decided it could manage that potential problem, and there was no reason other than bigotry to assert that gay soldiers would be more likely to fall afoul of such a dilemma than straight ones.
The story was more direct, and more on the point that Ambinder made in his story. One afternoon, relaxing after a day’s work on the farm that was his second career, he told me about an experience he had just after he joined his battery in northern Europe in late 1944. Then nineteen, and a newly minted junior officer, he commanded a towed gun — a 155mm howitzer, I think, though don’t quote me on that.
One day he sought out the battery adjutant.
What was the problem? the adjutant asked.
Well, said David, it seems that my loader and my driver are sharing the same sleeping bag. What should I do?
How does the lorry run?
Fine — perfect; starts every time, is maintained and fueled each night (not morning … crucial under the circumstances — ed.); shines as much as can be expected under the conditions.
How is the gun?
No problems, none at all. The ammunition is in good order, the gun never jams, everything works as it should.
And what was the problem you wished to discuss, Lt. S-M?
Nothing, sir. Nothing at all.
Which is to say exactly what Ambinder’s sources told him: what matters in combat is what you do in combat. Wasting time, and worse, depriving yourself of good soldiers, is worse than bigoted. It is stupid, and it costs the most at the very point where we can afford it least.
Did I mention I revere and hugely miss my uncle?
*It is true, as Ambinder points out that there are plenty of serving military who oppose gays in uniform who are not chickenhawks; I’m referring here to the much larger number of those who never wore the uniform, or did so always at many safe removes from combat who stand shoulder to shoulder to prevent some Americans from serving their country. For these, the full measure of contempt is not enough.
Image: Dying Achilles at Achilleion, Corfu. Sculptor: Ernst Herter, 1884.