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David C. Wilson Headshot

It's the Military, Stupid! Demeaning Service Members for Political Gain

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I am a professor of political science and international relations, but I'm also a veteran of two wars (Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom) with 20 years of service in the Army. Over the course of my service I reviewed tens of thousands of military personnel files, and at least 25 percent of them belonged to soldiers who should not have been in the service. But, it wasn't because of who they were; it was because their behavior while in uniform (or off-duty) was consistently substandard and considered unacceptable.

The overwhelming majority of military personnel have a problem with incompetence, not with personal background factors. This is why it's so irritating to hear politicians, members of the public, and even some senior military officials make demeaning references about the presumed inability of service members to work with people whom they may not like.

It doesn't matter that enlisted members have problems with officers; that lower enlisted are typically picked on (and often bullied) by higher enlisted personnel; or, that women leaders are often viewed more negatively by their male subordinates than male leaders. The military is founded on the idea that individuals are less important than the whole; personal squabbles are managed for the good of the mission and the unit. This is the rule, not the exception.

When I was in basic training, in Ft. McClellan, AL, our drill sergeants called us every expletive in the book, and frequently cursed our skin colors, regional cultures, heights and weights, and family names. They questioned the reasons we were there, and went out of their way to tell us we wouldn't last long.

But, they also taught us everything about being a unit, and nothing about being individuals. The 3rd Platoon did everything together -- we ate, trained, slept, showered, cleaned, marched, and fought as one. We also complained that Smith broke wind too much, that Miller never showered, that Johnson was slowing us down, and that Wilson was a "know it all." But, when it came time to fighting against 1st or 2nd Platoon (or anyone, including other drill sergeants), you would not see a more unified group.

The military operates by emphasizing a "team" identity, and this is why concerns about the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" are both wasteful and irrelevant. It's the military, stupid.

The military is not a voluntary civic group, and membership is not bestowed simply because you fill out an application. You sign away your own opinions and beliefs when you join the military, and adopt those regulated by the service. The leadership always reminds you of this fact.

Also, anyone who joins the military must go through intensive physical and mental basic training, and then go through advanced training for their skilled position. If a person commits to serving, and completes the standards required to serve, then it goes against everything we stand for as a country to have a rule in place that denies one the ability to serve openly.

I chuckle when I think about what it would have been like to serve, but not tell people I was African American; they'd know, but they couldn't ask, and I could always deny it if I wanted. LOL!

There are other points and questions to consider about this debate.

First, gay people already serve in the military. This is the biggest misunderstanding within the debate. If gays already serve in the military, how can merely having gays in the military lead to problems? Opponents of the repeal argue, "but once gays open up, it will cause cohesion problems." This is where the officers and NCOs must show leadership. Military personnel are already bound to rules about discrimination. Break them and you're penalized; don't enforce them, and you're penalized.

Second, we are perhaps too worried about how non-gays will respond to a repeal of DADT. The LGBT personnel will be the ones to face discrimination, taunts, and any threats, and thus, they are the group that needs a larger voice in this discussion. Frankly, focusing on the majority is a weak approach to understanding the problem. Can the military say, right now, how most gay veterans feel about the policy?

Third, the silliest argument I've heard was that personnel would not reenlist if DADT was repealed. The easy answer, albeit not politically smart, is "good." We actually do NOT want individuals who are serving for the wrong reasons. When I'm fighting on the battlefield, I don't need someone on my team who is more against me than for the cause we are defending. Today, the military ranks are less about quantity, and more about quality.

I remember when the black berets were introduced as part of the new Army combat uniform. There was outrage among the ranks, and many feared a cultural backlash because only the elite soldiers (i.e., airborne (maroon), rangers (black), and special forces (green)) should wear special "headgear." But, after some tough times (i.e., berets don't block sun, and can't handle rain well at all), the beret is hardly an issue. The point is that the military is not like other groups; today's military can easily "adapt, improvise, persevere, and overcome" to rule changes.

Military personnel also promise to protect and defend the country and the constitution, to "bear true faith and allegiance to the same" country and constitution, and to follow the orders of the president. This oath matters, and each and every service member should be reminded of their promise. That's all it will take to deal with the issue of gays in the military.

On a final note, it is dangerous to make military personnel policy based on the opinions of the personnel themselves. Certainly, the military would not have been racially desegregated if internal opinion drove policy, and the same can be said about women and religious minorities. There are already silent policy debates about disabled persons (e.g. combat amputees) being able to serve, and with the Dream Act at the forefront of the political agenda, citizenship will come next.

If there is one institution that should reflect the composition of the United States, it is the military. Give service members the respect they deserve; the majority of us are tolerant, understanding, dedicated, and will faithfully follow the orders of the president.