The New York Times features an op-ed today (3/5/10) by Gen. Merrill McPeak, a retired Air Force chief of staff, arguing against allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military. It’s not much of an argument, really–there’s not much more to it than the assertion that “warriors are inspired by male bonding, by comradeship, by the knowledge that they survive only through relying on each other,” and the claim–presented completely without evidence–that acknowledging that not all soldiers are heterosexual will “weaken the warrior culture.” You can’t really describe the piece as an attempt at persuasion–it’s more a statement of prejudice and a demand that that prejudice be given respect.
McPeak’s op-ed does mimic the form of an argument by beginning by stating a premise–but that premise is wrong. After asserting that the discussion over changing the military’s anti-gay rules “should start with the question, ‘What are armed forces for?,'” he continues, “Assuming the services exist to fight and win wars, those seeking fundamental change in the composition of combat units carry a special burden of proof.” Elsewhere, he restates this idea by saying that the military services “have no higher responsibility than to organize, train and equip formations that are effective on the battlefield.”
But the rationale for having a military is not to win wars; it’s to keep your country free. (McPeak may recall that his oath as an Air Force officer began, “I will support and defend the Constitution…”–that’s the military’s actual highest responsibility.) Even if one believed that an ethnically cleansed military motivated by a racist ideology would be a more effective fighting force–with a stronger “warrior culture” and greater “unit cohesion”–that would in no way justify reorganizing the Defense Department along supremacist lines. No military is a democracy, of course, but a democracy can only have a military that is consistent with democratic values.
Which leads me to wonder: When President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the military, did the New York Times publish an op-ed from a retired officer arguing that only a racist military could be counted on to win wars? (Glancing through the New York Times‘ archives, I didn’t see any, but they’re somewhat awkward to search.) If they did publish such an op-ed, are today’s editors proud that their institution included the racist point of view? If they didn’t, are they sorry that their predecessors failed to be so inclusive?
It’s a good bet that in 60 years, the homophobic policies of the military will be seen in the same light as military segregation is today. And people looking back on the history of how it changed will see that the New York Times allowed homophobia to have its say. I doubt that this will be seen as a proud moment.