Monday, August 07, 2006

Thoughts on a sensitive subject...

So, another case of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has made it into the mainstream news. This time, the valuable point was raised by the media that this particular soldier had some very valuable skills and we really can't afford to be kicking guys like this out of the force right now. See the full article here. The short of it is that an Arabic linguist was reported anonymously to his superiors, who investigated him under the pressure of threats from the accuser. At some point in the process, he was offered an honorable discharge, which he accepted much as one would accept a plea bargain in a criminal case. Trying to find work with a dishonorable discharge is a lot like trying to find work with a felony conviction on your record. Employers are loathe to hire someone who has a "dirty past". As I understand the policies, if the accused follows the investigation to a finding of guilt, s/he is given a dishonorable discharge. The soldier has since admitted that he is gay, and knew going into the military that he would have to live a closeted life. He knew it would be difficult, but was willing to accept the terms of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in order to fulfill the duty he felt. Unfortunately, someone else decided to end his career for him.

Now, as a former student at the US Air Force Academy who took the oath and wore the uniform, I have some thoughts on this subject. Furthermore, as a gay person, I have some other thoughts on it. Finally, as a citizen who is protected by the men and women in the military today, I've got some thoughts. So, I'll share them. Yea, blogs! I don't have to wait for you to ask...

So, here's the part that might surprise some of you: I understand the reluctance to admit "out" homosexuals to the forces. Some of it probably is rooted in homophobia and discrimination and our association of "gay" with "sissie" and "effeminate" and all that the stereotypical gung-ho military persona is opposed to. But some of it comes from a reasonable place. This is the same reasonable place that at least part of the objection to women in front-line combat forces comes from. In tense, deployed situations where service members are isolated from their real lives, intense emotions are the norm. People who think they're about to die together and literally could at any minute form relationships that are forged out of the extremity of their conditions. If you add to those already-abnormally-intense bonds the element of romantic love, either straight or gay, you create a potentially very dangerous situation.

How many of you who've ever been intensely involved with someone would deny that you felt that person and/or your relationship was more important than anything else in the world? That person became more important than supposedly critical and permanent things like your family ties, your job, paying your bills, keeping up with your friends and your activities. Usually, you get over that infatuated phase, and get back to your integrated life with all its facets, but you go through it so you can understand this exercise: Imagine that you're out there, fighting the bad guys every day. You hear the mortars crashing around your camp all night, every night. And then you're out on patrol one day, and a bomb goes off, and you look over and realize your buddy is missing half his parts. You scream for help, and you start doing the stuff you've trained to do in this situation. You make it as secure as possible for your team, get medical en route, and do first aid. What if, instead of your buddy, that was your girlfriend? What if it was your boyfriend? What if it was your husband, or wife, or lover? What if it was the person you thought you couldn't live without? Would you be able to shut off your grief, do your job, and hold it together in a combat zone while you watched the heart of your heart bleed out on the floor of a humvee? I'm not willing to bet on it, and neither are most of the folks in the command structure. That is why defenders of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and the "No women in combat roles" policies say that it's contrary to good discipline to reverse the policies.

Now, I'm not saying the scenario above is the only reason those policies are in place, but it's one of them. And it's a good one. American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines train very hard to be very good at what they do and to do it under extreme duress. They learn to get the job done even when they're tired, or hot, or cold, or wet, or hungry or any of the other things civilians can and do give as an excuse when we don't perform at our best. Even so, they are human and subject to human foibles. People do EXCEEDINGLY STUPID THINGS and foul up the job at hand over love. I don't want those EXCEEDINGLY STUPID THINGS to take place when the job at hand involves the national defense.

Now, that said, I don't think gays or women should be excluded from the military. If they want to serve, they should be able to. I, unfortunately, don't have a solution to offer as to how to avoid the pitfalls I've mentioned. Maybe we should ask the Israeli army? Men and women are drafted for compulsory service there, so they've obviously got something worked out. I know that a chief reason for which women have clamored after combat roles here is that they are de facto essentials in the promotion game. Without combat experience, the career ceiling is much lower. Women who want the same opportunities as their male colleagues need combat postings. The only way to foster promotion equality without putting women in combat is to create a separate set of promotion criteria for them, and I think that idea sucks. Setting different standards for men and women creates resentment and makes for a pervasive hostile environment that is bad for morale all over. So the apparent route to promotion equality then is women in combat. With that, the issue of handling sexual interactions in combat zones resurfaces, and if you're doing that for the heterosexual set, you might as well apply the same treatment to the homosexual set. I don't know how to do it, although I have a few ideas. None of that is well enough formed for me to be willing to post it out there on the internet yet, so you'll just have to hold your breath.

That's my general commentary on the policies as they relate to exclusion, equality, morale, and discipline. Specifically, I'd like to comment on the fact that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is a terrible weapon in the hands of a spurned romantic interest. Think back to how many of your relationships have ended awkwardly if not outright BADLY. Now, imagine that the psycho ex who called you at work and played love songs into your voice mail and turned up at your house at all hours of the night could, with a single anonymous e-mail, end your entire career. They'd have done it, wouldn't they? Gays in the military face that threat. I think that some fences need to be put around the "Don't Tell" portion of the policy. I'm neither a lawyer nor a policy writer, so I don't have specifics or wording for this, but something that protects men and women who are abiding by the "Don't Tell" portion of the policy from being ratted out by a bitter ex-lover would be ideal.

Go ahead and sound off, readers. Let me know what you think.


Anonymous said...

It would seem to me that we are asking our firemen/women and policemen/women to do this very thing as well and there are, as far as I know, no restrictions made on them regarding sexual orientation. It also seems to me that this situation would be solved by not putting lovers (heterosexual or homosexual) in the same....what is it? platoon? battalion? company? whatever.... In fact, it's my contention that allowing gay persons to be open about their orientation would alleviate some of these situations.

Come on, let's debate some more!

Thalassa said...

i think your parallel is a good one, but i think there are two significant differences between police/fire work and military work that make it an imperfect comparison. first: the risk of death is higher (afaik) in deployed military work than it is in civil service. second: the truly dangerous threats to discipline arise primarily in deployed situations, which police and fire fighters don't usually face. that said, i know that if one is in the position of risking his/her life at work daily, it doesn't usually cross one's mind that "hey, my risk is lower than it would be in occupation Y, so i'll just lower my stress level a notch now."

so, it's a fair parallel, but with some flaws. i agree that the only way to make it work would be a strict "no fraternization" policy. no frat within your unit, and no frat with your command chain - up or down. this is, occasionally, going to be violated, but the way it works now for men and women is that they can request or wait for their next change of assignment and begin dating after that.