Sunday, February 07, 2010

Don't Ask - Don't Tell? No. Don't Enlist!

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It should go without saying that discriminatory laws like DADT should be repealed.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).


  1. Ian, I never knew your father undertook that heroic struggle against the draft.

    Here's something that I am more than a little troubled about.

    Military service is just about the only way to participate in public life; to engage in some form of service to a greater good. Outside of the military young people are constantly dosed with propaganda encouraging them to be "individuals" - really to be isolated consumer monads.

    The highest expression of "individualism" is "Fuck all 'a y'all bitiches." The military is the only- absolutely the only- mainstream social institution that discourages sociopathy as a world view.

    The military isn't just a job it's a way of life that is actually quite appealing to young people who might not have a well informed world view but at least have healthy impulses.

    I'm sure that, at the leadership level, the military is well aware of this appeal. The military at least claims that the leadership is loyal to their followers. Where else is that true? Every other institution has made it clear that they believe in every man for himself.

    The scary part is that as America descends into individual barbarism the military is becoming a pole of attraction for those who wish to live in a socially conscious world. I see the military as a creature about to emerge into consciousness.

    Individual democracy has been abandoned, corporate society, the rule of the private sector is corrupt and evil who will save us? What other element in society values the contributions of all it's members? Honors their sacrifices? Appeals to their highest instincts and also provides quality medical care, first class child care, education and training, an equitable path for advancement? There's even a pension plan. Where else are you going to find a job with a pension?

    There's no such thing as an American left. There's virtually no such thing as a labor movement. The only force advocating for any of the traditional goals of the working class is the military.

    Is it any wonder that some gays and lesbians want in on the deal?

    Now, about those Arabic translators. I used to have a regular passenger who was studying to become an Arabic translator. I asked him about those gay translators and he smiled and said, "You don't get it, do you?"

    He was spending big money to qualify as a translator. He expected to make big money when he qualified. The military's translator training is as good as any university program. They even pay their students and offer a full benefit package.

    Trouble is that military translators make thirty or forty thousand dollars a year. Private sector translators can make five times as much and are much less likely to find themselves in harm's way.

    Don't ask don't tell gave one group of military trained translators an opportunity to get the benefits of military training plus that big private sector money.

    "Congratulations soldier! Your a fully qualified Arabic translator!"

    "Sir, I'm gay."

    "I have no choice but to discharge you soldier"

    HR people from the oil companies were waiting at the door.

    I'm sure it worked for one group of trainees, after which the military figured it out.

    I had a friend who resigned his officer's commission in the Navy because he thought that military service was antithetical to his identity as a gay man. That was back in the '70s. I wonder if he'd do that now?

    God I'm a windy bastard.

  2. Oh Jon you raise a point I really hadn't considered but I think you're absolutely right about.

    You know I read left-wing blogs and gay blogs and while I can't stand to read them myself, get reports of right-wing blogs, and everybody seems to be hungering for some kind of leadership that there's nobody around to provide, save the imperfect poles of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin.

    What you're saying kind of makes it sound like bad news for what passes for democracy should the military gain some the kind of consciousness you're talking about. Hey wouldn't military authoritarianism just be peachy!


    Thanks for the insight on the translators. One of the many reasons I didn't finish my college education back when I met you was that all my classmates in my slavic language studies seemed directed toward careers in government service aka espionage or international business. The money such a track provided might have been nice but I'm glad I can still live with myself.

  3. It's not just that people want leadership. People want to be a part of something. The whole modernist experiment in individualism is a failure. I sincerely believe that people were made for each other. We might not recognize the fact that all of humanity needs all of humanity, but at some level all of us want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.