Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Fall in Love

Jerry Stratton, December 31, 2010

The first time I remember being disappointed in a politician was back in 1993, a few weeks into President Clinton’s first term. I remember two promises of his campaign: a whispered promise through the grapevine to legalize marijuana, and a clear promise to end discrimination against gays in the military.

The first promise never materialized; it was a lesson never to believe a promise that politician isn’t willing to make out loud. He went into full retreat from his promise to end discrimination within a few weeks of taking office. The result was Clinton’s unsatisfactory-for-everyone Don’t Ask Don’t Tell compromise, in which military recruiters were forbidden from asking potential soldiers a question that—if the answer were discovered after sign-up—would get them kicked out of the military.

So I’m happy to see it repealed. However, if we want to avoid discrimination, flare-ups of violence, and other avoidable problems, we need to take this change seriously. The most basic requirement is that there should be no special treatment: recruits must be treated as recruits, not gay recruits or straight recruits.

The military should not discriminate against or in favor of gays and lesbians. However, this isn’t easy to do given the current state of the military. The argument that because we can integrate men and women into the military, we can do so for gays and lesbians is inherently silly—or incredibly discriminatory.

This change will be nothing like integrating women into the military, because we never integrated women into the military.

We let men and women into the military by, basically, creating an entire extra branch of each branch for women. We do this in the hope that this will reduce sexual tension against military discipline, partially by maintaining the easy fiction that women are in “non-combat positions”; we do this in the hope that men will follow orders and not worry that women are in danger.

You might think that’s a horribly sexist thing to say; it probably is. But imagine you’re a soldier, and one of your friends is dying on the other side of the field of battle. Your commanding officer tells you to follow the existing battle plan; your unit needs to provide backup for other units. Don’t put victory at risk to save that one soldier. If you don’t think that the likelihood of following that order is different depending on whether the dying soldier is male or female, you are either an incredibly egalitarian female, or you’re a wuss.

Now, imagine that you are the commanding officer in that position. The media occasionally runs sob stories about how soldiers were uncaringly left to die while their comrades watched under orders not to interfere. It’s rare, but that’s because the stories have no staying power. It sucks, but the public recognizes that this is what soldiers sometimes have to do.

Now, imagine that media sob story when the dying soldier was a young woman. In case you haven’t noticed during the last few elections, the media is probably the most sexist group of people left in our culture. They will run that story, and they will slant it as hard as they can.

Thus we have the sometime-fiction that women and men are kept separate. That is not a solution for gays and lesbians. We keep heterosexual men and women separate in the military because heterosexual men and women form sexual or sexually-tinged relationships. We can’t keep gay men separate from gay men, nor gay women separate from gay women.

The only way that integration of women into the military could be an analogy for integration of gays and lesbians is if we were to completely mix men and women in barracks and units, with no separate commands or facilities.1

Imagine that you’re in the military and a friend of yours is dying. Your commander orders you and your unit not to assist, because your unit is integral to the safety of another unit you can’t see.

One goal of military training is to ensure that you follow orders under chaotic situations like that.

Now imagine that it’s your fiancée. If you say you’ll still follow orders, you’re a liar or a bastard.

I don’t envy the military planners who need to guide this integration. It’s the right thing to do, but the right thing to do isn’t always easy. We should have solved this problem when we opened the military to women. Instead, we pretended that there’s such a thing as non-combat positions in an active military.

  1. And if we come up with a solution for integrating gays and lesbians into combat positions, we’ll probably have the solution for integrating women, too.

  1. <- Institutional memory
  2. Standing advice ->