TERRE HAUTE —
Back in July 1948, when President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, predictions for its effect on the U.S. military were dire. Sen. Richard Brevard Russell Jr. of Georgia echoed the sentiments of millions of Americans in an address from the Senate floor.
“The mandatory intermingling of the races throughout the services will be a terrific blow to the efficiency and fighting power of the armed services,” he said.
Some 62 years later, the source of anxiety over the efficiency and fighting power of the military is no longer black troops among white, but the dire predictions are the same. In his address from the Senate floor earlier this month, John McCain invoked images of “gold stars in windows” and of amputee Marines already lying in Bethesda Naval Hospital and “at Walter Reed with no limbs.”
“There’ll be additional sacrifice,” the senator from Arizona warned of the open intermingling of gay and straight troops. Likely, McCain said, the practice “will harm the battle effectiveness which is so vital to the survival of our young men and women in the military.”
Russell, whose name now adorns the main Senate office building in Washington, was specific in his case against desegregation of troops. “It is sure to increase the numbers of men who will be disabled through communicable diseases,” he said. “It will increase the rate of crime committed by servicemen.”
That grotesque theory detracts considerably from Russell’s insistence that he had nothing against blacks. In his Senate speech, he said, “I am proud to claim many of them as my friends. I know many Negroes who are as law abiding as any white man. Many of them are models of cleanliness. The moral and spiritual life of numbers of Negroes is above suspicion.”
The problem for Russell and most Americans was, you couldn’t guarantee that the models of cleanliness and lawful behavior would end up next to white G.I.’s in barracks, latrines, mess halls and foxholes. Thus, the worst stereotypes — “the Negro’s” presumed penchant for communicable disease and crime — dictated preferred policy.
Other than the extreme Christian right — whose adherents now predict rampant AIDS among U.S. troops, and the wholesale cashiering of Leviticus-quoting military chaplains — few opponents of the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” cite a fear of disease or increased crime. The problem with gay men and lesbians serving openly alongside straight men and women is “distraction,” particularly in close combat quarters.
For McCain and the other 30 senators and 175 House members who voted against the repeal, the danger is not in the presence of homosexuals in foxholes, barracks and latrines; they’ve been there for centuries. It is in heterosexuals knowing for certain that homosexuals are among them.
Marines, especially, who restrict open combat duty to males, have become the poster boys for the distraction argument. In the Pentagon’s massive survey of troop attitudes toward “don’t ask, don’t tell,” 58 percent of Marines in combat units predicted that acknowledged gay men would endanger the overall sense of cohesion. Forty-eight percent among Army combat units agreed, while 30 percent of total U.S. troops foresaw such a problem.
Significantly, 69 percent of the troops who answered the survey (115,000 of 400,000 queried, a stunningly successful sample by any survey standard) said they already knew or suspected they were serving with gay comrades.
In Richard Russell’s day, black men were good enough to fight and die for their country, but not to share bunk space, mess halls or combat units. When Truman drafted his executive order, there were four black Naval officers, 310 black Air Force officers and 1,306 black Army officers; all served in blacks-only units.
At that time, the majority of Americans (more than 85 percent) and most of Truman’s military advisers opposed the intermingling of the races. Actual desegregation of the military would take years of incremental, hard-fought gains by blacks and their civil rights supporters.
In contrast, repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which President Obama signed into law yesterday, is supported by the majority of Americans and most of the president’s military advisers. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, consistently has referred to repeal as “the right thing to do.” A timetable for implementation of the new policy is expected to take six months to a year.
But just as pernicious stereotypes were employed against black G.I.s in 1948, so they are being employed against gay and lesbian G.I.s in 2010. Ground zero is shared tents, side-by-side sleeping in the field and communal showers. Gay men, especially, are presumed to be incapable of inhabiting such spaces as anything but sexually aroused or secretly predatory beings. Doomsayers seem to envision Gay Pride parades amid firefights instead of trained combat troops laboring to keep one another alive.
Today, that attitude is just as offensive — and ignorant — as Russell’s argument about disease and crime. Anyone who buys into it cannot claim with credibility that he or she is not homophobic.
Earlier this week, the New York Times’ James Dao reported on interviews conducted of Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and Camp Pendleton in California. The men’s opinions on the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” varied, but inclined toward the skeptical. One 18-year-old private at Camp Lejeune said openly gay troops would not be accepted because “[b]eing gay means you are kind of girly. The Marines are, you know, macho.”
The naiveté of that young man is not untypical. As the Marines’ commandant, Gen. James Amos, informed Congress earlier this year, 60 percent of Marines are under the age of 21. “So we’re not sure what the impact is going to be,” he said of the repeal.
A far more moderate, thoughtful (and respectful) critic of repeal than John McCain, Amos refrained from hyperbole after the Senate vote Dec. 18. While McCain called it a “sad day” and relegated the long struggle to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” to “liberal bastions of America … elite schools that ban military recruiters from campus … the salons of Georgetown” and talk show hosts “who never served in the military,” Amos reacted like a military professional.
He praised his young charges as the best of the best and said of the new policy of acknowledging reality, “the Marine Corps will get into step and do it smartly.”
Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or email@example.com.