Man the Barricades, Men! The Gays Are at the Gates!

05/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Aubrey Sarvis Former Executive Director, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network

Let's get behind the misguided missile that four retired flag officers fired out of the 1950s into the heart of the liberal media last week -- that is, if anyone still considers the Washington Post's editorial pages liberal and if the word itself still carries any meaning except as a red flag to the know-nothings who mutter darkly about "European socialism," the gay conspiracy, black helicopters, and similar bugaboos of the far religious Right, who, as has often been pointed out, are neither religious nor right.

The missile came in the form of an op-ed column warning of the "grave harm" that will ensue if gays and lesbians are allowed to serve openly in our all-volunteer military. Essentially, "in our experience," volunteers would leave in droves - 228,600 is their "conservative" estimate, an estimate derived from extremely dubious sources including, I would say, their own experience. The armed forces would be effectively crippled and America would be . . . . Would be what? Conquered by Cuba? Held hostage by Somalian pirates? Annexed by Canada?

They cite their experience. They have experience with gays in the military? But they say that, by law, "homosexuals are not eligible for military service." Ipso facto they have no experience with gays in the military -- or, since they most likely did, they just didn't know it. The column was signed by two generals and two admirals, all retired. Their average age is 75.5. The youngest is 73, the oldest 79.

Ordinarily, their ages would be irrelevant, but not here. These good ole white boys are stuck in a time warp. They all went to high school when schools were still segregated by race. They entered the military when women were not allowed in the military academies and the military itself had only recently been integrated by President Truman's 1948 Executive Order. (The last all-black unit was not disbanded until 1954.) In those days the FBI was actively seeking white Catholic boys and the CIA white Protestant Yalies, or at least Ivy Leaguers. Senator Joe McCarthy was brandishing on the Senate floor lists of Communists and gays he purported to have found in the State Department, and to be dubbed either Communist or gay was to find your name on a blacklist that ended any career ambitions you might have had. As far as the military goes, being gay still does if you come out, and the Shameless Four who put their names on the Post's op-ed want to keep it that way.

Those who came of age in the 1950s weren't called the "silent generation" for nothing. The smart boys went along to get along. Don't rock the boat. Keep your nose clean and your mouth shut. Oh yes, don't sign any political petitions, either. That would be sticking your neck out. Stick your neck out and you might lose your head, figuratively speaking. Keep it where it belongs and you'll probably be promoted. I cite the ranks of the signatories as evidence.

It was a different era, and it is the era these four flag officers are not only coming from but unfortunately stuck in. Others have moved on but the anachronistic four stand firm in their belief that the strongest military in the world will collapse, utterly fall apart at the sight of gays and lesbians serving openly on shipboard or in the field. Do they think maybe gays translate differently from their straight counterparts? Perhaps they put a peculiar gay slant on their intelligence analyses? Do they think a straight soldier would turn away a gay medic trying to save his life? "No, go away gay doc, send me a straight medic." And when a gay soldier dies in Iraq or Afghanistan do they think he's given a special "transfer case" marked with a lavender triangle? But in their world there are no gay service members, so all of this is utter fantasy -- right? No, utter nonsense.

In one sense, though, the fears of these Shameless Four are true. It will be the end of civilization as they know it, but what they don't realize is that the civilization they knew ended a long time ago. They've been living in a bubble with the other dinosaurs in a gated country club community known as Jurassic Park. It will not be the end of civilization as the majority of us who live in the real world know it. It will simply be a reflection of that world.

There have been two or three profound cultural shifts in this country since these retired officers came of age. The military they joined then is not the same military, either. Minorities compose 27 per cent of the current freshman class at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Not included in that minority figure are a few gay and lesbian midshipmen who are almost certainly there and probably known to their classmates.

Those of us who work on this issue recognize the finely manicured hand of Elaine Donnelly behind this op-ed and the warning letter to President Obama they sent out March 31, which was also signed by a thousand other retired officers of Jurassic Park. For one thing, it went out of the same L Street address that Ms. Donnelly lists as her Washington office. There is the same old language about "social engineering," unit cohesion, lack of privacy, and blah-blah-blah. (We heard all that when President Truman said he was integrating the armed forces.) That is the doom-and-disaster language Elaine Donnelly has been spouting since she founded her Center for Military Readiness in 1993, the year Don't Ask, Don't Tell passed into law. This woman is obsessed with keeping women in their places and gays out of the military that she herself has never experienced. Not so oddly, Elaine Donnelly was a protégé of anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, mother of a gay son, who now serves on her board. Dr. Freud may be able to explain all this, but I can't.

President Obama, who is 47, grew up in a different era. The 1980s, when Mr. Obama was in his twenties, were very different from the 1950s. Presumably he won't be intimidated by this thinly veiled threat. He's faced worse, and he can recognize a dinosaur when he sees one.