Thursday, May 28, 2009

In lifting the military ban, understand the difference between "privacy" and "unit cohesion" arguments made by opposition

In reviewing the arguments on how to lift the military gay ban, it’s well to remember the distinction between the concepts of “privacy” and “bonding” (as the latter results to “unit cohesion”) in the military environment.

Back in 1993, Senator Sam Nunn had first made his points about “privacy”, saying that soldiers have “no privacy” and “don’t go home at night like you and I do.” The “unit cohesion” concerns appeared latter, somewhat in the discussions of military sociologist Charles Moskos, but more in the discussions of other military commanders, some of whom were hostile. And the gay community in those days tended to respond to both (as if they were the same) with somewhat lame comparisons to Truman’s racial integration of the military in 1948 (well dramatized by Gary Sinese in the 1996 HBO film “Truman”).

I was struck all of this because of the comparison with my own 1961 college expulsion, which is well documented on my main blog (and in my first book). The analogy there was more about “privacy”. I was in a small, often hot dorm room with a roommate with whom I has certain cultural issues that led to a breakdown – detailed in the book. College classmates are not expected to “bond” in the sense that the Armed Forces mean, even if college football brings out a lot of esprit de corps and even if Greek Week provides a lot of men with the bonding that goes with a “rite of passage” (for that matter, so did the “tribunals” that I talk about in my book).

An interesting comparison could be proposed between military bonding and unchosen bonds between family members (like siblings) set up by the marriage of their parents. As in the latter, the bond is not with someone who is “chosen”, the way a relationship (a “marriage”) with a lover is. But it sill presumably has emotional substance. The military may fear that a straight soldier will feel intruded upon by expecting an emotional bond with a gay servicemember in an environment where access to the normal social opportunities of choice and networking (as in training or deployment) may not be available. But, of course, something like that really could have been said about the racial issue in 1948.

In a practical sense, the military’s concerns would be less with today’s generation, which has been raised in a much more pluralistic society, than it might have been in previous generations. But even in previous wars, as Randy Shilts documented so well in “Conduct Unbecoming”, openly gay soldiers served with distinction and often were well accepted by bunkmates in time of real combat.

Furthermore, the Rand Corporation, in its 1993 study (Rand Corporation (National Defense Research Institute, "Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy: Options and Assessment") pointed out that military unit cohesion is still largely “task cohesion”; it is not expected to continue indefinitely (as family cohesion is supposed to).

The “privacy” concerns, which President Clinton sincerely thought he had addressed in 1993 with his “don’t pursue,” now seem complicated by the presence of the Internet. As George Washington University law professor Daniel Solove has written, today’s media-driven generation has much less expectation of “cultural privacy” than has any generation in the past.

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