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No Straight Solution

By Boleslaw Z. Kabala

By now, Vice President Al Gore '69 and former Sen. Bill Bradley have stopped niggling about just how to enable gay soldiers to serve openly. Tex. Gov. George W. Bush and Ariz. Sen. John S. McCain, their opposition to such a step made clear, have meanwhile shown little desire to rekindle the debate. The quiescence surrounding the issue may be welcome respite in a campaign season that, with every passing day, belies the notion of newfound public civility. But the temporary political truce on homosexuality in the military is a troubled one. The situation on the ground is as volatile as ever.

Members of the Army are already undergoing a 90-day education program aimed at rooting out homophobic harassment. Each of the armed services is slated to draw up and conduct similar training. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen deemed the sensitivity sessions necessary last July, when a soldier clubbed Private Barry Winchell to death in Fort Campbell, Ky., after extensively baiting Winchell about his homosexuality. It was not until Feb. 1, however, that Cohen explicitly instructed everyone in the armed services to undergo the training. Cohen has also requested a detailed report to gauge animus against gays in the military from the Department of Defense's inspector general.

These most recent efforts bring the country face-to-face, yet again, with the fundamental question of whether gays should be allowed to serve openly in the armed forces. The blitzkrieg of moral and military dilemmas unleashed by the debate is daunting and asking difficult questions is therefore essential. Equality is a noble goal, but how far should it extend? Unit cohesion is desirable, but is it ever moderated by other considerations? Unfortunately, neither the left nor the right has cared to ask.

Liberals are big on rights. The 14th Amendment, according to the standard argument, extends to all citizens the equal protection of the laws. This guarantee must be upheld, especially when so basic a civic capacity as defending one's country is at stake. Discrimination on the basis of lifestyle is a clear-cut violation of individual dignity and self-determination, and as such cannot be countenanced. Conservatives take issue with such claims, objecting usually on the basis of unit cohesion. Rights, so the reasoning goes, are meaningful only insofar as a state can stay independent enough to secure them. Fighting power is the overriding imperative. Openly gay soldiers might impair the unit cohesion integral to an effective army, and for this reason alone they should not serve.

There is some merit to both perspectives. Obviously, the military should not be a testing ground for theories of social justice. When it comes to war and peace, we do not have the luxury of running controls or tweaking variables ad infinitum; if the experiment fails, men and women die. In this regard, the callous disregard for national security evinced by those who spout entitlement talk is contemptible. At the same time, the exclusive emphasis of many conservatives on unit cohesion and effectiveness is more than slightly disquieting. Developed to its logical extreme, it can lead to--indeed has led to--truly totalitarian lengths.

Throughout World War II both the Nazi and Soviet armies achieved significant unit cohesion. Admittedly, there was nothing fuzzy or friendly about the means employed. Stalin had gunners open fire on deserters. The SS brutalized inhabitants of areas through which the Wehrmacht passed, leaving no doubt in the German soldiers' mind that local capture was not a viable option. German troops were also informed that desertion would result in retribution against their families. The moral repugnance of such techniques notwithstanding, they almost certainly contributed to tangible differences in military performance per capita. For every enemy soldier the American trooper killed, his German counterpart killed 1.5.

Yet the point is efficiency is not and cannot be the only goal of the American army. We do not shoot soldiers deserting on the battlefield, and we most certainly do not go after their families. An imperfect record notwithstanding, we respect human rights. And we attach value to the individual life. Although we might have a better military if we lost our national conscience, we properly insist that fighting power take a backseat to certain fundamental, defining values of our country.

This is not to imply that the values of society at large map neatly onto those of the armed services. Just try telling your drill sergeant you intend to uphold Jeffersonian principles of individualism throughout Hell Week. There is a tension here--a mutual tugging at the boundaries between civil right and military imperative. But the latter is definitely constrained by the former.

This, then, is the appropriate framework within which the issue of open homosexuality in the military should be addressed. It is not merely a binary question of upholding equality on the one hand or maintaining military effectiveness on the other.

Rather, does or should equality in America extend the same degree of moral recognition to gay and straight lifestyles? And even if it does, is the right to sexual self-determination so fundamental that a presumption is made in its favor even when no one is 100 percent sure what the long-term impact on national defense will be?

Surveying the policy landscape through such a scope might finally help us move beyond the Don't Ask, Don't Tell, (and now Don't Harass) muddle. With it in place, the new batch of military anti-harassment programs should have a better chance of operating at maximum success.

Boleslaw Z. Kabala is a first-year living in Matthews Hall.

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