Homosexuality and Military Service

Here is a thought provoking editorial regarding homosexuals in the military. Not having been in the military myself, I was impressed by the cogency and sensibility of the arguments Owens made – especially the point about how erotic love changes one’s behavior toward the beloved. This editorial appeared in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, with the title, “The Case Against Gays in the Military.”


As expected, President Obama pledged during his State of the Union address to “work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.” This law—often mistakenly referred to as “don’t ask, don’t tell”—was passed in 1993 by a veto-proof margin in a Democratic controlled Congress.

The law codified regulations in effect before President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, making the historical prohibition against military service for homosexuals a matter of statute. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates observed in June of last year, “What we have is a law, not a policy or regulation. And as I discovered when I got into it, it is a very prescriptive law. It doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination or a lot of flexibility.”

The congressional findings supporting the 1993 law (section 654 of title 10, United States Code) reflect the common-sense observation that military organizations exist to win wars. To maximize the chances of battlefield success, military organizations must overcome the paralyzing effects of fear on the individual soldier and what the famous Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz called “friction” and the “fog of uncertainty.”

This they do by means of an ethos that stresses discipline, morale, good order and unit cohesion. Anything that threatens the nonsexual bonding that lies at the heart of unit cohesion adversely affects morale, disciple and good order, generating friction and undermining this ethos. Congress at the time and many today, including members of the military and members of Congress from both parties, believe that service by open homosexuals poses such a threat.

There are many foolish reasons to exclude homosexuals from serving in the armed services. One is simple antihomosexual bigotry. But as the late Charles Moskos, the noted military sociologist, observed during the Clinton years, this does not mean that we should ignore the good ones. And the most important is expressed in the 1993 law: that open homosexuality is incompatible with military service because it 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.

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. It 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.

Philia depends on fairness and the absence of favoritism. Favoritism and double standards are deadly to philia and its associated phenomena—cohesion, morale and discipline—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—which unlike philia is sexual, and therefore individual and exclusive—will be unleashed into the environment. Eros manifests itself as sexual competition, protectiveness and favoritism, all of which undermine the nonsexual bonding essential to unit cohesion, good order, discipline and morale.

As Sen. James Webb (D., Va.), who was awarded the Navy Cross for valor as a Marine officer in Vietnam, wrote in the Weekly Standard in 1997, “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 by 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 they help to explain why open homosexuality and homosexual behavior traditionally have been considered incompatible with military service.

Although it is popular to equate opposition to permitting homosexuals to serve openly in the military today with opposition to racial integration of the services six decades ago, the similarities between the two cases are superficial.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, who no doubt knows something about racial discrimination, made the proper distinction in a reply to former Rep. Pat Schroeder during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in 1992 when she argued that point. “Skin color is a benign nonbehavioral characteristic. Sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics. Comparison of the two is a convenient but invalid argument,” he said.

The reason for excluding open homosexuals from the military has nothing to do with equal rights or freedom of expression. Indeed, there is no constitutional right to serve in the military. The primary consideration must be military effectiveness. Congress should keep the ban in place. It certainly should not change the law when the United States is engaged in two wars.

Mr. Owens is the editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by That Liberal on February 5, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    I am not particularly in favor of homosexuals in the military and while I see this guy’s argument as cogent and reasonable, it does not seem particularly relevant considering the number of women we have in the military. All of the arguments that are made here apply to women just as easily as they apply to gay men.

    If this were about homosexuals on submarines, or homosexuals in Infantry and Armor divisions or Special Forces and the Navy Seals (areas in which women are still not technically permitted to serve), I might see it’s validity more. But it seems like this is about letting homosexuals into the Armed Forces at all and I just don’t buy it in light of women’s positions in the military.


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