I am a fan of the old World War II movies, the ones where the platoon was composed of typical Americans, Hollywood-style. There was a guy named Farmer and one called Preacher and another called Brooklyn (who was killed shortly after receiving a salami from home), no blacks, and, of course, an officer who was good-looking and clearly a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant of the John Wayne variety. Now, of course, we would have to add a gay soldier. I fear for him. He'll need someone to watch his back.
The repeal of the odious "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law has been 17 years in the making. It could have been done much sooner had it not been for the political cowardice and/or ignorance of much of Congress and some of the military. The nation as a whole was way out in front of these institutions, having learned from their own kids and society in general that gays and lesbians were not drooling perverts but human beings with a different — not better and not worse — sexuality. Most of us know this now.
There's good reason to believe, however, that this lesson has not been universally learned. In the run-up to the vote in the Senate, General James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, showed how he felt about the prospect of open homosexuals serving in the Marines. He was particularly concerned about combat situations where, he thought, gays might be "a distraction." "Mistakes and inattention or distractions cost Marines' lives," Amos said. This was not the first time the general had expressed his doubts. Earlier, he had talked about what might happen when his Marines were "laying out, sleeping alongside of one another, and sharing death, fear, and loss of brothers. I don't know what the effect of that will be on cohesion. I mean, that's what we're looking at. It's unit cohesion. It's combat effectiveness."
It's easy to dismiss Amos, but his concerns fall within the realm of possibility. After all, being gay is a sexual matter, and young people are nothing if not sexual. This is the way it is supposed to be. This is also the problem with having women in the armed services or, if you are a radical feminist, having men. Sooner or later, a certain amount of unacceptable harassment will occur, abuses will be committed, and, more innocently, plain hooking up is going to happen. We know this.
But we know also that this can be managed, contained, limited. It takes education. It takes training. It takes leadership. This is what concerns me about Amos. His views are on the record. He sees gays as somewhat out of control, possibly holding hands in combat, sneaking into one another's bunks at night, being distracted just as the enemy is coming over the hill. Not only is this silly and based on an ignorant misconception of who most gays are, but it can be dealt with.
Amos, though, is the wrong man to deal with it. His subordinates know what he thinks of gays. They know he has not an iota of sympathy for what might be their difficulties or any tolerance for their lifestyle. If I were gay, I would not want to work for the man — or serve under him. He is one step short of being a bigot.
The racial desegregation of the military in 1948 also produced much blather about unit cohesion. It is true, of course, that race is not about behavior, but it is also true that race is obvious, spotted clear across a room — or a dance hall or a noncommissioned officers club — and can produce a violent reaction. (Remember, the South was still an apartheid nation back then.) The military managed because it was commanded to comply. The leadership came from President Truman. He liked to have his orders followed.
The Marines of today know that virtually the entire Republican Party stood up for bigotry. They know that some important senators — John McCain and Jon Kyl, to name two — furiously fought to retain the status quo, always in the sainted cause of unit cohesion. (Kyl said repeal could "cost lives.") Marines know, too, that in surveys, those on the front lines are least supportive of having gays among them, and they are also aware that their brass fought to keep "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The issue for me, as for Amos, is unit cohesion. That's why he has to go.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.