Unfriendly Fire
How the gay ban undermines the military and weakens America

Is Openly Gay Service an Unacceptable Risk?

Here are some of my thoughts in response to the spirited comments prompted by my last blog post, which was itself a response to some of the venom that poured fourth after my recent cnn.com op-ed. Some in this debate were clearly not interested in a productive dialogue, but many–even those I disagree with–seem open to genuine debate, which I appreciate. This is a response to them, especially “USMC” and “J Haplin.” (In a previous comment thread, we debated the role of civilian academics in contributing to the debate on whether to lift the gay ban. The upshot for me was this: “Let’s retire this idea that only the military can have input on what the military does–that’s what dictatorships are for.” I also pointed out that support for ending the ban is hardly confined to civilian academics, and gave a list of studies conducted by the U.S. military itself that found that openly gay service works perfectly well. In each case, the military tried to bury its own studies.) More to come.

So: A few thoughts directed to USMC & J Haplin:

Saying I study this issue is not, in itself, the argument; the argument is the argument. And that’s what I draw on to make my case –decades of evidence showing that openly gay service has never undermined the combat capabilities of a modern military force–overseas or right here in the U.S. where we know that gays not only serve but serve openly. My book chronicles plenty of known gays serving in combat units, and the feared consequences never come true. This doesn’t mean there aren’t disruptions, intolerance, grumbling–but our fine troops can handle it, and our overall readiness is not compromised. So this is not all about hypotheticals; it’s about whether our policy will catch up to a reality that some are willing to face, while some continue to deny.

That said, let us all acknowledge that assessing the consequences of a proposed policy change is about predicting the future. Openly gay service is not an unknown, but an overall policy change is, and you might worry that just the symbolism of the change could affect morale and readiness. None of us can predict the future, exactly. What we can do–and what the military does every single day–is look at what happens in scenarios that are similar enough to be not identical, but instructive, do our best to assess the risks, and weigh the likely costs and benefits of taking that risk. This is what I spent a decade doing, and I hope you’ll take a look at my book because it puts together all the evidence to be found on this issue and at the end, you have to decide if you think the risks are too great to take, and if the costs of inaction outweigh the costs of reform. When Gen. John Shalikashvili, former Chair of the JCS read my book, he agreed with me. So did the reviewer in the Military Times. So do many, many others who look at the facts and don’t rely on their feelings or their experience–important but necessarily limited foundations for policy. Many who used to oppose this have looked at the facts and decided the time has come for change.

Unfortunately, what I see too often in this debate is not a focus on facts, but fear, an especially odd reaction coming from the world’s most powerful fighting force. This debate is riddled with assertions–based on hunches, feelings, morals and fears–that if the ban is lifted, X and Y grave consequence will surely ensue. That hasn’t happened elsewhere, despite the very same fears. It also hasn’t happened here, despite the fact that gays already serve openly in combat. But could it happen if we formally change the policy?

Mentioning “Canada” as a way to dismiss the relevance of foreign militaries is disingenuous. Why not mention Britain, whose military we actually serve with on ships? And why not note all 24 nations that let gays serve openly? The U.S. has a Foreign Military Studies Office, created in 1986, to learn from what other countries do. Why dismiss other countries when it comes to gays? The point is not that our scenarios are identical or that we should necessarily follow other countries, but that this is all relevant, if imperfect, data to assessing the consequences of policy change. So is the vast social science literature on institutional change, including in the military. So is the polling data that shows the majority of the military does feel comfortable around gays–polls are not the whole story, but they’re a data point.

USMC, I do think you mis-define what it means to be “openly gay” and miss the true costs of forced repression in the military. “Openly gay” does not mean public displays of affection or gay sex on ships or in barracks. As you know, this behavior is already barred in the military where it undermines good order and discipline. As for talking about “oral adventures”? Oral sex, which is considered sodomy according to the Manual for Courts-Martial, is banned by the UCMJ, and if you tell me you’ve never heard a straight guy mention it while serving, then you might want to hang out with a livelier crowd. Gays are asking for the exact same standard as the one applied to straights.

Why? Because as you say, relationships in the military are everything. You say good men very close to you may be gay but you don’t know. But how close can you really be to people when they’re totally barred from talking to you about their deepest emotions, their life partners, what they did or thought about on Friday night? And isn’t such closeness critical to military bonding? Try talking to a gay friend about what’s on his mind–it might not be so bad. As I chronicle in my book, there are a huge number of what I call “hidden costs” to the gay ban: tens of thousands of service members who are gay or lesbian can’t talk to their military doctor, psychologist or chaplain honestly because they could be fired or even jailed. This is essential to morale and readiness. Many told me they just become cold to their comrades because there’s sometimes no other way to avoid lying under the policy. And this is not even to mention the loss of 12,000 troops, including irreplaceable Arabic linguists, under the policy. It is simply fact that gays and lesbians have been discharged even when they did not talk about their oral exploits–through intercepted emails, letters, even third-parties who told the command that someone was gay.

So this is not about gays putting their own need to profess their identity or engage in disruptive behavior above the needs of the group. The fact is that forced secrecy and celibacy by gay people–which straight people would never tolerate–is unnecessary and has costs. Is it possible that the negative things you fear might happen actually might not happen if the ban is lifted? And that it would go far toward shoring up badly needed talent, giving gay soldiers the respect they deserve for serving their country, and removing from the armed forces the blemish on its integrity that has currently stained it as a result of this policy of forced dishonestly? Is it possible that the trade-of between letting gays serve honestly and the so-called risk to life and limb may be a false trade-off? This is of course what I think. Perhaps, though, you are still unwilling to take that step given the high risk you may still consider it to be, and what you see as the low price tag of inaction. It may just not be a priority for you.

Life involves risk every day. What makes me proud of our military men and women is that they face that risk with such courage. I’m waiting for the day that courage is applied to the service of gays and lesbians too.

3 Responses to “Is Openly Gay Service an Unacceptable Risk?”

  1. bfree says:

    …if you are so sure our troops can handle it, then let THEM, not some pro gay activist group, decide what is the best structure for combat units.

    The studies you speak of are nothing more than an exercise in mental masturbation. Do you want me to reel off the thousands of studies that have never proven themeselves in reality…it’s almost comical and only the intellectuals are ignorant to believe themseslves…of course they are never the ones holding a weapon or worse, a dead best friend.

    For the intellectuals it becomes about power, politics, ego and everything BUT the best interest of the soldier.

    In the end, you take this referendum to combat troops, you let them vote on it, they are shouldering all the risk, not us…if they vote yes on openly gay soldiers, then it shall be. That’s the way it must work.

  2. USMC says:


    There a few issues that I want to address because your response was on target, but a bit too vague in what each reality actually represents.

    First, and just very briefly. You stated that I might be confused on what being openly gay means. You said ““Openly gay” does not mean public displays of affection or gay sex on ships or in barracks.”. This is absolutely false in every way. Discussing, or demonstrating, or simply stating any homosexual preference or desire in an un-confidential manner is the only definition there is for being “openly gay”. If you are a homosexual and you do not ever discuss, demonstrate, or make known your sexual preference than you are not open. At any point you do any of those three, you “out” yourself and are an openly gay individual. Whether that behavior includes your “oral adventures”.. and men do not have vaginas, but do participate in oral sex with other men, they put their mouths on other men’s penises, then you are openly discussing your sexual preference. Since as you know men do not have vaginas they do participate in sodomy, or anal sex with other men. They insert their penis into another man’s anus. By discussing the desire for one man to have anal sex with another man, that is being openly gay. For 2 men to demonstrate their sexual preference by holding hands in public.. (yes, we do actually leave the base, we do actually go out and live lives in the general public, we kiss our girlfriends, go to the movies, hold hands with our girlfriends, there is nothing in the UCMJ that says that a man and woman cannot kiss or hold hands if they are dating within the fraternization guidelines as well as the extra-marital guidelines.. ie. I have seen my CO kiss his wife), so a homosexual does not have to be IN the barracks to demonstrate their homosexuality in full view of the public as what other openly gay men do. It is almost unbelievable that you would try and redefine what “openly gay” means. You know as well as I do that any homosexual man that tells his coworkers that he’s gay, (which clearly as i defined above means he desires to participate in sexual actions that include other men), that means he’s openly gay. If he shares his sexual escapades with his friends then he’s openly gay. If he walks around in public demonstrating his sexual preference then he’s opnely gay. He is not hiding, or keeping these aspects of his life confidential. I have respected your intellectual arguments thus far… please have some respect for those that disagree with you. Trying to redefine what “openly gay” means only tarnishes YOUR credibility.

    Lets discuss foreign military’s for just a second. It is true that we fight with the Britains. But you need to realize that the British active force is around 200,000 (this does not include reserve forces). The US Marine Corps alone has a greater personnel strength, on its own that the entire active force of Great Britain. You will find that all of the military’s that you refer too in your studies are comparable or less than that of Great Britain. Great Britains military represents a little over one tenth the size of active US Armed Forces.

    Looking at the scope of security responsibilities in times of war or warfare the British military is not considered as the same type of tactical or strategic force. What this means and what you should understand as an example is, it is true that we fight along side of Great Britain, but this can “sound” a little bit misleading. In Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) the AO of (area of operations) for the British military was very limited in theatre, this is to say they were utilized for a few southern geographical areas, mainly Basra. You cant compare a military force that is charged with holding a “town” with a military force that is so powerful and so well trained, equipped, and “strong” that they can literally wage 2 theaters of operation on its own.

    This also has another extremely vital meaning. These militarys you reference are not (for the forseeable future) going to be relied upon by free peoples of the world to insure freedom and democracy. This is to say, since they are so much smaller, its easier to introduce change and to be honest, with very little consequence.

    Another part of the discussion is the moral realities of the nations that these smaller militaries represent. Great Britain, Canada, France, … are all and all have a different cultural and moral attitude. Its a far stretch to compare different nations, cultures, moral values of the populace, not even to mention the size disparity of their military’s and the operational responsible role that such military’s play. They are not comparable, its like comparing some small software company in Alabama, which has its place in the market to that of Microsoft and the worlds reliance on Microsoft software to advance the quality of life at home and for business.

    Looking at it further, none of the studies tout relevant numbers towards even these smaller military’s in terms of openly gay members in combat units. I have mentioned this before. The stress, relationships, and responsibilities of a Service Member serving in the food services section of his unit is separate to that of service member serving in a line unit or other combat arms.

    As you can imagine being charged with cooking, administration duties, supply, IT services, maintenance, etc.. everything that is VITAL to the success of any military but not the same type of service as an Infantry, Armor, or Artillery unit, where your job is taking ground by force under fire.

    All of the studies you reference interview members (scientifically or not) with a small sample of which 20% of members say they “know” or suspect a member of a combat unit to be a homosexual.

    I honestly have no doubt that currently in the US Military these non combat roles could easily be filled by openly gay americans, with very little consequence. This is to say that if an F-15 mechanic was openly gay, that his unit most likely would not care (as the rest of them are also mechanics) and there really is no reason for such closeness within the unit as they will never see combat. This is not to suggest that their role is not important, it is, those F-15’s provide air support to the ground combat elements, everyone must do their job in order to save the lives of others. So I agree with you, i can see very little consequence to such a policy shift.

    So within the correct context we’re left with a few realities, being that comparing the miliary of Canada or Great Britain, or France, or Denmark is not relevant to the US Military at all. That the cultures and moral values of these nations differ from that of the United States. That these militaries are not responsible for or capable of the same roles, or responsibilities of the United States. That nothing has demonstrated that the even smaller combat units of these smaller militaries (which are not tasked, trained, or include the military psychological outlook) are the same of the United States. And that most openly gay troops from these non-comparable militaries are NOT members of line or combat units.

    You see you are continuing to compare apples to oranges.

    What you need to specifically address on target is the effect on infantry and other combat arm units. This is NOT representative of the entire US Military. In fact MOST military occupational specialties are non combat in nature. You need to look directly at these units and only American units. Afterall this is what we’re talking about. This is actually what the argument is about, not a wide ranging “concept” referencing foreign militarys that are not comparable in any scope.

    When you look to just American line units or combat arm units you will find data that supports a possible number of homosexuals in a company sized unit to be around 4%, and currently these members are not open about it, in fact theres no way to be certain one way or the other, but we can attribute some numbers to units AFTER actively serving gay Marines or Soldiers have left the service and spoke what they knew, not only about themselves, but also about other homosexuals they knew in their unit.

    In most cases, these gay combat veterans have all been very vocal, not only of the anti-homosexual attitude of their comrades but some with outright fear for their own lives FROM their fellow Marines or Soldiers.

    Clearly you can see that somehow your argument and references to what other small militarys do and AGAIN STRAIGHT FROM THE HORSES MOUTH experiences of homosexual combat service members DO NOT support each other. Otherwise these very vocal homosexual combat veterans should be talking about how they really dont think that their other brothers in arms from these line units would care if they were openly gay.

    It is these issues you need to address in this debate. J Haplin and myself are not speaking in broad concepts about openly gay service members. What we have addressed is what is most vital for the American military, which is our frontline combat readiness and combat effectiveness. This is where the vast majority of our KIA’s reside, as well as our WIA’s. This is where its actually LIFE AND DEATH, and the consequences of which have an actual attributable impact on the lives of Americans.

    Your studies should tell you where most combat Marines and Soldiers come from (the bible belt of the United States) where culture and values differ greatly from that of Mass. or San Fransisco, or Denmark, or France….

    I have one request from you, that you please refrain from insulting myself and my fellow Marines when you say things such as “What makes me proud of our military men and women is that they face that risk with such courage. I’m waiting for the day that courage is applied to the service of gays and lesbians too.”. In my mind it would demonstrate great weakness on my part to ignore conviction and morality in order to pacify the agenda of less than 10% of the population. I just dont understand why you feel its a good tactic to advance your cause when you continue to denigrate and degrade the beliefs and character of those you think “should” or “would” be accepting of your policy desires. I can assure you it does nothing more than infuriate me and I have maintained respect throughout this conversation. You are effectively telling me that I am currently a coward in that I do not wish to embrace openly gay homosexuals into my COMBAT UNIT, for which I have lost friends in and comrades on Foreign soil fighting for YOU. Gay or not, it makes no difference to me, I still fight for you to live the life you wish too. To call me a coward is not the best way to go in the hopes of furthering your cause. Good to go? If we can at least agree that you will refrain from degrading me to some incoherent redneck who’s somehow not courageous enough to embrace your lifestyle WITHIN my role as a US Marine then I will agree to continue in this debate without insulting you or denigrating you.

    I would hope that that would not be asking too much.

  3. bfree says:

    USMC..Nathaniel could really care less about Gay’s being in the military. He saw an opportunity to elevate his status and power and to win some type of intellectual argument that resulted in a real change in policy. Intellectuals rarely care about the end result, only about winning the argument.

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