THE BLOG

Homosexuality in the Military: An Anthropological Perspective

11/11/2010 05:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The U.S. military is struggling with the issue of integrating gays. They are afraid of how this will affect discipline and morale. Now that the military ban on gays is coming to an end, it is worth asking what this might mean for military readiness. An anthropological perspective is illumining.

Homosexuality was perceived very differently by soldiers at other times and places.
If one could interview a Spartan general and tell him that in the distant future a great nation would ban homosexual acts between soldiers in order to maintain military discipline, he would be astonished, incredulous, outraged.

Few peoples have ever been as well informed on the topic of military discipline as the Spartans, and their incredible success in fighting much larger rivals, such as Athens, to a stalemate, speaks to their morale.

How did they do it? According to Bertrand Russell (2004, pp 106-107), the key to their military organization was a mentor relationship between skilled warriors and their apprentices:

Homosexual love, male if not female, was a recognized custom in Sparta and had an acknowledged part in the education of adolescent boys. A boy's lover suffered credit, or discredit, by the boy's actions. Plutarch states that once when a boy cried out because he was hurt in fighting, his lover was fined for the boy's cowardice.

The Spartans were not alone in their institutionalization of homosexuality in the military. The same phenomenon occurred among the Japanese samurai. According to R. C. Kirkpatrick (2000, p. 394): "Same sex sexual partners of the Japanese samurai gained both martial training and land."

Kirkpatrick (p. 394) also points to the central role of homosexual ties in the military discipline of the Sambia tribe from Melanesia:

Among the Sambia, homosexual behavior occurs among initiates in a regional cohort of loosely-joined militias. The Sambia are headhunters, often at war with neighboring groups; Herdt argues that their homosexual behavior solidifies bonds that are vital for mutual defense.

This general principle was articulated by Plato in The Symposium:

And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city . . . and when fighting at one another's side, although merely a handful, they would overcome all men.

Such assertions are strikingly out of tune with our own society and times where homosexuality is feared by the military as a threat to discipline and homophobic attitudes have ruined thousands of careers.

As anthropologist Walter L. Williams noted in his comment on Kirkpatrick's (2000) paper:

Another astounding perspective is Kirkpatrick's suggestion that same-sex attractions strengthen warrior-hoods. Contrary to claims by the U.S. Armed Forces that homosexuality is incompatible with military service, a cross-cultural perspective would suggest that same-sex intimate bonding leads to stronger mutual defense. While many nations are abandoning discrimination against gay and lesbian soldiers, it may take an anthropologist to suggest that policies suppressing sex between soldiers may in fact be counterproductive to defense effectiveness. Recognition of sex as a means of building stronger alliances may be tacitly accepted, and this would avoid the huge expenditure currently borne by the U.S. military in its efforts to investigate and dismiss homosexuals from its ranks.

Williams may be dreaming in his suggestion that the U.S. military would go this far. Yet, the underlying argument is valid. The enemy of military discipline is not homosexuality, but homophobia. In societies where homosexual relationships are encouraged among the military, these boost morale and fighting readiness rather than degrading it. Some of the world's finest fighting units have been enthusiastically gay. Say what you like about the Spartans, the samurai, and the Sambia headhunters, they were no sissies.

Kirkpatrick, R. C. (2000). The evolution of human homosexual behavior. Current Anthropology, 41, 385.
Russell, Bertrand (1945/2007). A history of Western philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster.