Why Are Conservatives Attacking West Point?

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET
  • Aaron Belkin Author, How We Won: Progressive Lessons from the Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

The story had only been out on the wires for about a day when the right wing message machine went into action. A former Cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point had received an award for his senior thesis arguing that "don't ask, don't tell" -- the law which prohibits gay and lesbian service members from acknowledging their sexual orientation -- should be repealed. Associated Press wrote a story about the award. And then the venom started to fly.

Elaine Donnelly, director of the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative military think tank, told the media that, "I question the judgment of the leadership at West Point, who would recognize such an essay and give it an award that can be used for a purpose contrary to military policy." Donnelley appeared on American Family Radio this morning and one listener observed that she seemed "just furious" that West Point had given an award to a paper opposing a military policy. "She was just so mad", the listener told me.

The Center for Military Readiness is a well-connected institute with a distinguished board that includes many retired general officers. Why would such an organization attack West Point? The answer becomes apparent only after the camouflage is stripped away from "don't ask, don't tell."

The gay ban has always rested on a fake foundation. According to those who wrote the policy into law, allowing service members to acknowledge their sexual orientation would undermine unit cohesion and prevent the troops from forming bonds of trust which are necessary for the development of effective combat units.

The only problem with that claim is that it is not true. Literally there are at least a half-dozen fatal flaws with the so-called "unit-cohesion rationale", but mentioning just a few of them is enough to give a sense of its implausibility.

For starters, the military has traditionally relaxed or suspended its gay ban whenever bullets started to fly. During the first Gulf War, for example, the Pentagon issued a "stop-loss" order that forced even those gays who were in the process of being fired to deploy to the Middle East. Once the war was over, their discharge proceedings were resumed. If gays truly undermined cohesion, the Pentagon wouldn't knowingly send them into war.

Another fatal flaw is revealed by the 24 foreign militaries which successfully allow gays to serve openly. The British military thought integration would cause the sky to fall, as two-thirds of UK troops had said they would not serve alongside gays. But after the British ban was lifted, a classified Ministry of Defence study found that cohesion had not been impaired. And, none of the other militaries which allow gays to serve openly -- including many of our coalition partners -- suffered a decrease in cohesion either.

Supporters of "don't ask, don't tell" point to other bogus rationales, such as the claim that integration would undermine heterosexual privacy in the shower. (They forget that after boot camp, almost all service members have access to private shower stalls). But these other justifications, just like the unit-cohesion rationale, are camouflage that is designed to conceal the real justification behind the ban.

Anyone interested in that justification can consult the terrific book by Anne Loveland, "American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military 1942-1993." Loveland shows that when President Clinton tried to compel the Pentagon to lift the ban at the beginning of his first administration, a little-reported fight took place between evangelical chaplains and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

According to the Chiefs, the best way to oppose Clinton's plan was to testify in Congress that lifting the ban would undermine unit cohesion. The chaplains, however, were apoplectic. They didn't want the Chiefs to use the sanitized language of military effectiveness to make their case against gays. Rather, they wanted the Chiefs to testify that gay troops were perverts in uniform who would undermine the moral fabric of the armed forces and the country.

The Chiefs responded that such arguments would never fly in Congress, and that they would be much more likely to prevail over Clinton if they avoided moral claims and relied instead on apparently social-scientific points such as the unit-cohesion rationale. The Chiefs won. Congress passed the gay ban into law. And the new statute's language included explicit references to the risk that integration would pose to cohesion.

Now fast forward to 2006.

At least a half dozen polls over the past three years confirm that about two-thirds of the public, including majorities of republicans as well as regular church-goers, want gays to be allowed to serve openly. Gallup reported that a stunning 91 percent of young adults want gays to serve
openly. The public clearly thinks that it is loopy to fire Arabic linguists for being gay.

But here's the kicker for the traditional values community. Polls also show that a vast majority of service members feel personally comfortable around gays and lesbians. And Annenberg even reported that a majority of junior enlisted service members, precisely those troops who supposedly cannot form bonds of trust with gays while serving in foxholes, now want gays to be allowed to serve openly.

In 1993, members of the traditional values community were able to hijack the military, so as to be able to use the armed forces to advance their particular social agenda. Even though they were not able to persuade Congress to include their preferred moral language about why gays needed to be fired, they were able to join forces with enough groups, including many Democrats, to get the gay ban passed into law.

Moral conservatives can enjoy the status quo for now, and maybe even for a long time. But when a West Point Cadet receives an award for a senior thesis calling for the repeal of the gay ban, they know that their ability to use the military to advance their particular social agenda will not last forever. At least on this issue, change is inevitable.

Back in the early 1990's, when only 40 percent of the public believed that gays should be allowed to serve openly, Melissa Wells-Petry, an officer with ties to traditional values groups, wrote that, "efforts to accommodate homosexuality within the military would conflict with [public] reality to such an extent that for that reason alone [accommodation] would be totally useless - if not calamitous...the American people always are at issue when the Army formulates military personnel policies. It is the American people, ultimately, who must be persuaded of the wisdom of personnel decisions and have confidence in their efficacy."

Melissa? Elaine? What say you?