Rethinking Gays in the Military

It's been several years now since "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was replaced with openly gay service. At the time, those of us who were opposed to the repeal worried that introducing sexuality into line combat units would be disastrous for unit cohesion. Military service is rightly conditioned on the needs of the service, without disrespect to those who are excluded for having conditions -- whether blindness or any other condition -- that are not ideal for service.

Our opponents argued that, in fact, asking people to live a lie was too big an ask: they should either be allowed to serve, or not allowed to serve, and realistically with Obama in office that meant they should be allowed to serve.

Some political arguments are about morality, but many political arguments are about forecasting. Once a decision is made and some time has passed, it's possible to go back and examine whether the forecasts were good or not.

On reflection, I think that those of us who opposed the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" were right about the danger of introducing sexuality to line military units, but wrong to think that gays posed much danger here. There just aren't enough gays, as a percentage of humanity, to create that much change. It's not all that likely that a company of infantry will have one gay guy in it; if they have two, that's unusual. There is thus little reason to be afraid that they will pair up, and even if they do, it's really unlikely there will be a third gay in the unit who might become jealous. The argument that it could happen is not wrong, but as a practical matter it doesn't really happen in the kind of small, line units where unit cohesion is of such critical importance.

By contrast, the Marines United scandal shows that the real dangers come from introducing heterosexuality into line units. Even though there aren't that many more women than gays in line infantry units, nearly all the men are subject to feeling attractions and jealousies towards them. There is a serious threat to good order and discipline when the majority of the unit is involved in competing with each other for the sexual attentions of the rare woman; a male/female pair will become the focus of intense jealousy; and if a breakup occurs, you run into an increased risk of photo sharing of the sort that the Marines United scandal is all about.

Since there is apparently no possibility of asking people not to hook up with fellow servicemembers, nor to ask them not to share nude photos of themselves while in the military, we are left with a pretty damaging dynamic to unit cohesion. The military is trying to address it by cracking down on the photo sharing only, which strikes me as a half-measure that won't be effective because it doesn't begin to treat the emotional issues that are really at work. Young people have higher hormone levels and less experience, and they are easily swayed -- we all remember how easily from our own youth -- by longing and loneliness and jealousy.

Consider too that those high hormone levels, in the form of testosterone, are even helpful for the basic mission of the infantry. Yet insofar as these same high levels make one more likely to make bad love-related decisions that will now result in a mandatory separation review, it sounds as if the introduction of sex to the infantry really is proving disastrous. Not only are these units cracking up over the sexualization of fellow soldiers or Marines, the chosen solution is likely to expel chiefly those whose hormone mix best supports battlefield performance.

So, we were right about the sex. We were wrong about homosexuality, though. It's too uncommon to be the kind of problem we thought it might be. Rather, heterosexuality is the real danger to the military's unit cohesion.


Joel Leggett said...

I would caution against making such a sweeping claim about being wrong regarding impact of homosexuality in the military. Just because the cases and the issues aren't publicized in the press doesn't mean they don't exist.

Grim said...

True, but the fact that they can be kept out of the press does speak to the scale (which is the main point I'm raising). The Marines United scandal involved 30,000 members (not all current Marines) and thousands of women's photos.

In any case, I don't mean to claim that there has never been a single problem. I only mean that the threat from sexualizing the infantry was real enough, but the gay aspect of it was absolutely tiny by comparison to the danger of bringing heterosexuality into the infantry.