Sunday, February 01, 2009

Recent documentary brings up the subject of "honor" for gays in military again


Friday, I reviewed the documentary “Tell”, an assembly of testimonials from gay veterans who had served in the military (see my movies blog), and in one particular story a young sergeant, who had been wounded in Iraq, made a point of the fact that it was a matter of honor for him to say who he was (in the media) and not just anonymously. Of course, I feel that way about my own life. I remember the famous quote from former midshipman Joseph Steffan’s book “Honor Bound” (Vantage, 1992) that “personal honor is an absolute” and can never be regained when surrendered. Steffan had served a summer of submarine duty (and was apparently the boat chess champion), and one of the other subjects in the film had also served on a submarine in the 1960s – one of the most intimate environments possible, even for the military.

The use of the word “honor” this way, however, seems now to take us on an existential journey. The military feels that once the “tell” event happens, others within a unit will (or at least may) believe that they’ll be subjected to some kind of unusual personal scrutiny according to the values of the gay person. That busts up the unit cohesion and “honor” as they see it – we’ll get to that in a moment. Doesn’t “honor” just mean that “we should ask” and the gay person should never be there in the first place? That’s how it was thought to be (but really wasn’t) until the 90s. Practical and political needs in time change our perceptions. In fact, the rise of women in the modern military and the practical likelihood of opposite sex “psychological intimacy” (let alone practical risk of pregnancy) probably presents a greater “risk” to cohesion than a small percentage of open gays (who in the military seem to have an “off” switch or fuse for environments like submarines anyway), but there’s no question that the acceptance of women is both a political and skills necessity.

It’s interesting how the concept of honor gets mediated by the values of a society. The concept of honor in this film and in Steffan’s book fits into an individualistic society where there is an idea that people make or break themselves as individuals in relation to others. The military is in somewhat of a paradoxical position, needing to embrace both individualistic and more collective notions of honor. The individualistic idea is important because saving lives depends on telling the truth. But it also depends on the chain of command and credibility of leadership (that is “power”).

We often hear the term “honor” in patriarchal or religious societies applied to groups of people – especially families – under the control of someone, like an elder. In collective cultures, with less dependence on modern technology, it’s often even more important that those “in charge” – whether by choice or not – protect others that they are responsible for “from enemies” in a necessarily unjust and imperfect world. After all, why do we have to fight wars? It’s interesting how the concept vacillates a lot more than we realize.

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