2010/11/07

Gays and the army

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Some news from the American DADT front (DADT = Don't Ask Don't Tell, a policy which allows gays to serve in the military only if they keep their preferences a secret. Most NATO members allow openly gay troops.)

SAN DIEGO — The new commandant of the U.S. Marines Corps said Saturday that now is the wrong time to overturn the "don't ask, don't tell" policy prohibiting gays from openly serving in the military, as U.S. troops remain in the thick of war in Afghanistan.

"There's risk involved; I'm trying to determine how to measure that risk," Gen. James Amos said. "This is not a social thing. This is combat effectiveness. That's what the country pays its Marines to do."

Last month, the Pentagon was forced to lift its ban on openly serving gays for eight days after a federal judge in California ordered the military to do so. The Justice Department has appealed, and a federal appeals court granted a temporary stay of the injunction.

Amos said the policy's repeal may have unique consequences for the Marines, which is exempt from a Defense Department rule for troops to have private living quarters except at basic training or officer candidate schools. The Marines puts two people in each room to promote a sense of unity.

"There is nothing more intimate than young men and young women - and when you talk of infantry, we're talking our young men - laying out, sleeping alongside of one another and sharing death, fear and loss of brothers," he said. "I don't what the effect of that will be on cohesion. I mean, that's what we're looking at. It's unit cohesion, it's combat effectiveness."

First of all: I have no problem with gays. In fact, I consider them to be former competitors who dropped out of the competition. I'd have no problem if all good-looking male singles but me became gay tomorrow. I'd really be fine with that. (Emphasis on "male"!)

I have also no issues with gays in an air force or navy. I accept absolutely no argument against gays in air forces and navies.

The army (and a parallel army branded as a "marine corps") is different. I poked some fun at the DADT policy problems before, but I have to admit that it's really tricky with ground forces. I avoided the topic for a year, but Amos provided now the perfect provocation for a comment. He has hit the nail without the more often associated bigotry.

There's no good reason to prevent all-gay combat units. Gays proved to be effective warriors, soldiers and leaders in history. Alexander the Great was gay, Frederick the Great was most likely gay, Thebes' sacred band was gay, many Spartans were pretty much bisexuals - the list is long. In fact, it's longer than the list about females as effective warriors or soldiers. A segregation between heterosexuals and homosexuals would probably be unacceptable for political and civilian reasons, though.
 
There's no good reason to prevent wholly gay or mixed air force or navy units. There's one really important issue which makes mixed army units very risky, though:

The general said it - it's about cohesion.

Cohesion is something which civilian pundits usually ignore in discussions about the integration of gays (and women!) into army units. That's a serious mistake. It's almost all about cohesion. Forget the shiny electronics, forget rifles and bullets. Forget tanks, forget camouflage patterns - warfare is largely about what happens in our brains. Cohesion is one of the most important symptoms of what happens in our brains in wartime.

Cohesion is the footing of an army. A unit without good cohesion is brittle, it will break under pressure and be destroyed. A unit with good cohesion can stand and survive vastly superior attacking forces and does not disintegrate even if it's forced to pull off a difficult withdrawal.


German soldiers know cohesion through the keywords "kleine Kampfgemeinschaft" and "Kameradschaft". Cohesion has been a traditional strength of German forces thanks to a suitable personnel system. It's widely considered among experts to be one of the variables which can explain the military efficiency of the German army in both world wars. Cohesion is one of the most important factors for small unit performance, and even major battles are now largely accumulations of small unit engagements.

The U.S. forces are known to be restricted in regard to building cohesion by their early industrial age-like personnel system. They have extreme difficulties to create good unit cohesion because troops cannot serve in a stable team for long. 
The Marines fare best, for they established a USMC-wide ethos and esprit de corps.


The introduction of openly serving gays is - like the introduction of females into army units - an experiment. It can be successful and it can be a failure. "Successful" would likely mean no more improvement than a slightly enlarged recruitment base, while "failure" describes a loss of cohesion which can have disastrous consequences. We won't know the result before the next military crisis in warfare. We need at least a crisis comparable to the crisis of TF Smith in 1950 to know whether the experiment was successful.

There is a huge risk in such an experiment, and this risk comes on top of the huge risks around the uncertainty about modern conventional warfare. We didn't have a top league peer vs. peer conflict for 65 years, we don't know modern conventional warfare. The closest thing we know is 70's technology conventional warfare between very dissimilar powers.
Now on top the uncertainty about the effect of gays on unit cohesion. Repeat:

"There's risk involved; I'm trying to determine how to measure that risk"

Most comments on DADT which I ever bothered to read were either partisan or quite homophobic. The article about Amos finally pushed the real issue into the public.


I don't say gays in the army are a bad thing, nor the opposite. I'm not pro or contra DADT. I say there's a real professional issue, a risk which needs to be explored and understood, maybe managed.
It would be nice if we could have discussions about females and gays in armies based on such professional issues alone, without the other diatribes.


Sven Ortmann
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11 comments:

  1. >The closest thing we know is 70's technology conventional warfare between very dissimilar powers.

    Are you referring to Vietnam or Iran-Iraq war?

    I think the latter can give us a far better indication on modern conventional warfare, even if the armies involved were second rate and the terrain quite specific, since they were roughly the same strength. We also saw trenches, blitzkrieg(you wrote on this a bit, if my memory serves) and chemical warfare together.

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  2. Having both gays and females in the combat arms seems to be a non-issue for the Canadians in Afghanistan.

    I suspect the military leadership were concerned about it when it was imposed on them, but it really turned out to be mostly a non-event.

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  3. I'm sorry Sven, but let's call a spade a spade. These concerns about 'unit cohesion' are about fears that openly serving homosexuals will be ostracised by their bigoted comrades. These very same arguments could have been used to argue against racial integration.

    That's not to say they're totally invalid. In the case of racial integration there were definitely some problems with racism among the soldiers, but we integrated because it was the right thing to do, because it respected the equal(not separate but equal) dignity of American men of all races who wanted to serve their country. If soldiers aren't professional enough to treat their comrades with respect, regardless of their sexual orientation, then the armed forces have a more serious cultural poblem that needs addressing.

    And it's not as if there aren't homosexuals serving in the military under this law. They're forced to lie to the world about who they are every day under this policy. These men are fighting and dying and they deserve to do so in honesty and dignity.

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  4. @Anon:
    The contest of incompetence between Iraq and Iran was of little interest on land. I referred to the South Ossetia conflict which was fought mostly with 70's technology on at least technologically even ground.

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  5. The very same arguments WERE used against African Americans...

    Big racial problems didn't actually materialize until the Vietnam war. Yeah, there were some problems on a small scale, but in the Army, much of the integration actually happened in combat. During the start of the Korean War.

    The big difference is that gays are already serving in most units. And in many cases their comrades know who they are. There is nothing experimental about it. It's just fear. Not necessarily fear of gays, but fear of change. The whole cohesion argument is also BS. In fact it's merely an excuse for the ban. When the generals could no longer claim some moral reasons, they made up stuff about cohesion and effectiveness.

    Also ask yourself which people have more social cohesion (which should not be confused with task cohesion). The ones who lie and keep each other at arms length because some have to keep secrets and can't join all conversations? Or the ones who can be completely honest and talk with each other?

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  6. Sven, I don't know how you have the affront to question me for a light hearted joke but publish a bigoted post like this.

    It really does beggar belief

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  7. Correct me if I'm wrong but we need to give our Drill Instructors some credit here. Don't you have to satisfy them prior to graduating basic training. They have been weeding out undesirables for a long time now.
    They plant the seeds to unit cohesion.

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  8. Thinkdefence, could you please point out what exactly is supposedly bigoted in here?

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  9. DADT is a stupid policy, but it has sound reasoning.
    Theres a lot of very good work on the subject by an author called stephanie gutmaan, she used to blog on The Telegraph Blogs.

    There isnt a secret movement in the US Armed Forces hell bent on weeding out Gays.
    But there is an acceptance that 18 women in a 20 bunk room on a carrier are made uncomfortable when the other 2 are having noisey sex.
    Yes, it wasnt just secretly gay macho men who "hated fags", theres reams and reams of complaints by women against other women.

    If you want to be discharged from the US armed forces, the easiest method is to write, "I am a homosexual" on a piece of paper, sign it, and hand it to your C/O.
    The vast majority of unfairly discharged "gays" did exactly that.

    It doesnt take a genious to work out they just wanted out of the army, and took the quickest route available.

    Link to one post by SG, theres a few if you care to google
    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/stephaniegutmann/100024228/obama-and-gays-in-the-military-if-it-aint-broke/

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  10. You assume a slightly decrease in the recruiting pool. Well this assumption doesn't take in to account that the kind of man, which is suitable for military duty, will actually be reluctant to do duty:
    1. Under a woman as superior officer.
    2. With his back to the wall all the time.
    The wester armies and their repeated failures to win actual wars are not a good examples to the contrary.

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  11. Someone tried to peg my opinion on homosexuality and women in the military. I could only answer with a simplest versions of objectives and then examined pure competition.

    The objective of combat is to win/survive.

    If I go into combat, I want to win.

    If I send someone into combat, I want them to win.

    If my country must fight in combat, I want my country to win.

    Combat favors the best competitor.

    The business of military is competition.

    The business of sports is to inspire through comptetition; but, it's not combat.

    The military is not a social experiment and soldiers' lives are too valueable to risk playing these politics--aren't they?

    If it doesn't matter that we risk soldiers' lives, failing in combat, and losing nation status, then why don't we have racial quotas for basketball teams?

    Why aren't their equal percentages of women on a football teams

    Why aren't we interested in the sexual representation of athletes--athlete who are all making huge impacts in sports fans' lives?

    What makes sports competition immune to such social daliances? Is not more wealth risked in war? Is not sport arenas less important?

    Combat and war are some of the ugliest of human actions with the furthest reaching consequences. Why prolong it and why turn it into a political show for voters.

    Of course I know. It's because people get enamored with the parade uniforms and it spurs fantasy (sometimes sexual). For the sake of a fantasy, we risk our very existence. Sexual fantasy may feed a violent frenzy, but violent frenzy spurred by unbridaled fantasy won't serve poltical ends favorably. Armies that gave its soldiers sexual reward for its battlefield victories have always been actions condemned by History. But, armies with the tightest disciplines always have the sharper edge in combat. Countries with the best disciplined armies are always most likely to continue their culture even in the face of monstrously larger competitors.

    I expect barracks gang rapes, fragging, and murder because of this. But, I also know it will be covered up because there are too many politicians who will enjoy their privately own uniformed harem of privates who service their privates.

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