Yesterday, I addressed 150 Army cadets at West Point Military Academy in New York’s Hudson Valley. The Palm Center delivered the first-ever outside lecture about “don’t ask, don’t tell” at West Point six years go when our director, Aaron Belkin, was invited to speak there, and I was continuing in this tradition,
invited this time by Major Kevin Toner, a professor in the Academy’s Department of Social Sciences.
I delivered my address the same day that First Lieutenant Dan Choi, a West Point graduate and Iraq War combat veteran, was notified he would be fired from the National Guard. His admission on national television that he is gay, he was told in a letter from his commanders, “constitutes homosexual conduct” and “negatively affected the good order and discipline of the New York Army National Guard.”
I spoke to two morning classes for one hour each and was received quite well. Cadets seemed engaged and open to my case. I explained that, as a historian, I was most accustomed to delivering lectures with the trademark academic’s “on the one hand… on the other hand…” That is, I normally strove to give both sides of a historical or political debate, scarcely letting students know what position I, myself, held.
In this case, I used that skill to engage the cadets by talking about all sides of this controversial issue, and by showing that I took seriously the concerns of those who opposed openly gay service. But I also told them that my book took a clear position and that I would use this unusual opportunity of addressing the nation’s next generation of Army leaders to make the case that the gay ban was both unnecessary and damaging—the argument I make in “Unfriendly Fire.”
I made that case in two ways: First I went through a brief history of anti-gay exclusion to show that the sentiment, custom, policy and (now) law excluding open gays from the military was instituted by default, as a holdover from colonial laws that punished not just homosexual conduct, but any kind of sexual expression that did not seem to grow the tribe, maintain lines of racial and religious purity and keep a strict hierarchy of social order–goals that today are anathema to a free society. My point was to show that current policy was devised by those who have an emotional opposition to homosexuality (including those who regard gays as a “moral virus” and an “enemy within,” phrases used by military officers in their testimony to Congress in the 1990s) and who have spent a century creating rationalizations to explain their emotions. No actual evidence has ever shown that sexual orientation is relevant to military effectiveness.
Then I divided up the “currency” of opposition into three categories: troop discomfort, fear of damage to the military and morality. I won’t repeat the whole lecture here, as I’ve written extensively about it elsewhere. To summarize, I said that no one joins the military to be “comfortable” and that insisting that open gays might make some troops uncomfortable didn’t pass the giggle test. Yes, of course it might. But when Army soldiers faced off against the most dangerous Jihadists deep in the mountains of Tora Bora—did that make soldiers “comfortable”? Did getting up at 4am for a cold shower? Did giving up an arm to an IED on the road out of Baghdad airport?
Regarding damage to the military, I unpacked the vague and euphemistic assertions that gays would threaten “cohesion, order and discipline,” by arguing that this had never happened anywhere that open gays served, both abroad and in our own military—not that there was never a single disruption, but that overall effectiveness was not impaired. Scare tactics that thousands of troops would leave if the ban were lifted were also used in Canada and Britain and never came true. And it was an insulting vote of no-confidence in U.S. troops to suggest that if a policy change like this one occurs, our soldiers are not professional enough to follow orders and continue to maintain order and discipline in the ranks—just because some gay people would now be allowed to tell the truth.
Finally, I challenged the relevance of morality, while sympathizing with its import in the military, and also challenging them to devise a more conscious and rational definition of what “morality” means in a the 21st century fighting force. Some say they must share the values and morals of those they serve with, and that gays don’t fit the bill. I answered in three ways. The first was that the principles of tolerance, equal treatment, religious freedom and individual rights challenge the notion that one group has the right to exclude another just because they think they’re immoral. The second was that this position is not intellectually honest: do they really send all of the more than 2 million people who wear the U.S. uniform through this litmus test before deciding if they can serve? Or even the small number of people in their tight-knit combat unit? Should evangelical Christians get to exclude Jews because, according to their beliefs, they’re going to hell? And I then suggested that some people may hold onto unchallenged, stereotypical beliefs about gays as people who are unable to conform to the military values of selflessness, courage and duty. Having a moral military matters. But in the year 2009, should a “moral” military mean regulating the private consensual sex lives of American troops? Are these the vaunted “core values” of the U.S. military?
After the lectures I took several questions, both publicly and afterwards. Questions included: What about reverse discrimination if the ban is lifted? How many more gays do you think would join the military? Don’t you think “don’t ask, don’t tell” helps prevent openly gay behavior, and isn’t this necessary for good order? How can you trust opinion polls? Aren’t the values of most troops more conservative than those of the rest of society? The first cadet to speak to me after the lecture asked for my autograph.
After my address, Major Toner presented me with a West Point coin to thank me for opening minds by raising hard questions about military policy on the Academy’s campus. He also took me on a campus tour that included a look at the West Point cadet prayer that is carved into stone at the Academy, and is the epigram that begins my book: “Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half truth when the whole can be won.”