This week, following President Obama's lead, the US Senate held hearings about repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law that congress enacted under President Clinton. DADT, as it's called, was originally meant to reform anti-gay policies in the military, but in the end became license for a witch-hunt in the armed services resulting in the discharge of thousands of lesbian and gay servicemembers.
It was pretty amazing to hear figures like Admiral Mullen call for the extending of this civil right to lesbians and gays. Even General Colin Powell has now come out for its repeal, and he was instrumental in the passage of the law in the first place. Typically, Republican dinosaurs like John McCain and a host of social conservatives have defended the law, some like war criminal Oliver North with outlandish claims.
It should go without saying that discriminatory laws like DADT should be repealed. That's basic equal rights. But for me, the real question is why would any self-respecting lesbian or gay man want to join the armed forces? Why would anybody want to join the armed forces?
I'm not stupid. I understand that the military is a job with benefits in an era when jobs with benefits are scarce. I wish I had a job with benefits myself. I understand that many people join the military out of a desire to contribute to society, to defend the nation against attack, to defend their families against future danger. I get these things. But I think that the good will that leads some people to join the military is misplaced; the military, by its very nature, bends that good will to its own ends.
I question those who want military careers; and I question those in the gay community who make this civil right greater priority than others our communities also lacks. I question making DADT-repeal higher priority than solving other issues facing us -- as Americans with our trainwreck economy and nightmarish healthcare system. It's one thing to say that DADT repeal might be possible given the turn of the top brass' opinions, or to suggest that government should be able to reform more than one societal crisis at a time, but as for my values, DADT reform ranks very very low.
My father, Peter Horst, was drafted in the 1950s. The Korean war was over; he was not threatened with shipment to some futile overseas war. He refused his draft notice saying that military service was incompatible with his religious beliefs, religious beliefs based on "love" being the highest human calling. When asked what religion he belonged to, he replied that these were his own personal beliefs. A long law suit ensued, which, I believe, went all the way to the Supreme Court.
The U.S. District Court fot Michigan, in acquitting Peter Horst
of the charge of refusal to accept induction into the armed forces, interpreted the statutory definition of religious training and belief to mean "any belief, orthodox, or unorthodox." The court also held that Congress did not intend "that a registrant's claim of exemption—must carry with it any concept of fear of religious sanctions, such as punishment after death or excommunication from the church ..." The court ruled that the appeal board had misinterpreted the meaning of religious training and belief in denying the defendant a CO. classification because his description of the Supreme Being as "God's Love" raised doubts in the minds of the appeal board members that the defendant's claim was based upon belief in a Supreme Being as envisaged by the draft law."
His conscientious objection back in 1957, and his commitment to choosing alternative service (which he did with the American Friends Service Committee in Mexico; my birthplace) makes refusal of military service something I consider a family legacy. I, myself, was luckily born a small handful of years shy of being subjected to the draft for Vietnam.
Vietnam was, however, the backdrop of my childhood. I remember the nightly casualty reports. I remember the footage on nightly TV. I remember the peace marches. And if you think Iraq or Afghanistan is a war, with relatively few American casualties and the civilian victims of American weapons largely kept off camera, Vietnam was a WAR writ large in the media. Blood and death were everywhere in print and TV; and the casualty figures from that war make today's conflicts pale by comparison. As I've written elsewhere in this blog, the best thing about the Vietnam War is the way it ended, with the route of the US forces who didn't belong there in the first place.
Times have changed and the draft is gone. Ironically, being gay -- or claiming to being gay -- was one of the time-honored ways for getting out of being used as involuntary cannon-fodder. Now people join the military more or less voluntarily; economic crises and coercive video-game military recruiting efforts notwithstanding.
But what does it really mean to join the armed forces? The military is the brute force of American foreign policy overseas.
It is the instrument through which the United States forces its will upon the other nations of the world. Its defensive capabilities are secondary to its offensive capabilities: witness the US response to 9/11. All those brave men and women who signed up to defend the US from attack by terrorists were then cynically used as instruments in the utterly unprovoked aggression that was the US attack on Iraq.
Much has been made over the dozens of gay Arabic-trained linguists discharged from Pentagon service. One could look at this as stupidity on the part of the government that could use more Arabic speakers. But I look at this from a different perspective: the utter corruption of wanting to sell one's knowledge of Arabic to the subversion of Arab nations and the subjugation of Arab peoples to the will of US foreign policy; policy which despite some of President Obama's more pacific and diplomatic statements remains fundamentally aggressive.
I recognize there is a cultural gulf here. I know people who are veterans; I know others who are in the reserve. I'm not saying these are bad people. But what I'm trying to say here is that just as we gay people have fought for a transformation in our relationship to society as a whole, so all Americans need to fight for a transformation of American consciousness as a whole.
The big lie here is that military service is a job. That killing people on the orders of a giant machine is a job. That having a "job" like that absolves one of the personal responsibility of holding life-affirming values. American soldiers are brainwashed to crush their own sense of self in subordination to the needs of that armed machine; to enable them to do horrible things to (foreign) people on demand without staining their consciences. This might be sound military thinking, I don't know. But what I do know is that such sound military thinking is antithetical to my values. The lives of Americans in the military are sacrificed daily on an obscene imperialist altar. The troops -- regular people like you and me -- are trained to take the right and duty to decide who among the regular people in front of them -- only a little less like you and me -- might be killed. It doesn't have to be this way.
National service shouldn't be channelled into the military-industrial complex. People who want to defend the ones they love shouldn't be taught to abandon their own moral compasses; shouldn't be made to behave like trained attack dogs.
Why is the military leading relief efforts in earthquake-struck Haiti? Why are people who signed up to guard the US against attack being shipped off to invade other nations? When the US sends its drone aircrafts to spy on and assassinate people across the globe, what right does the US have to execute people -- suspected terrorists or no -- without benefit of judge or jury? If you're the one being attacked, how is sitting in an office building and being attacked by murderous hijackers wielding a jet plane any different than sitting in a shack in Pakistan and being attacked out of the blue by a lethally armed model airplane? Our shared humanity should be our moral compass, and we shouldn't have to set that aside when we want to give something back to our country.
No matter how many gay people are allowed to eventually join the military, it will never be an army of lovers. It's just not its nature. So Ask! Tell! But don't enlist!
(A note on the art: the top picture of soldiers wearing makeup is from the Revolutionary Beijing Opera "Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy" of Chinese Cultural Revolution fame; the picture of the soldier in a dress is of course Corporal Klinger of the M*A*S*H TV show).