I hesitated to write anything regarding President Trump’s appalling, but not entirely surprising, ban on transgender people serving in the Armed Forces. After all, this is a topic that’s already been picked apart ad nauseam, from every angle along the political and social spectrum.
My first inclination was to shake my head, chalk this up as another bizarre and ill-advised decision by our current president, and move on. What could I add that hasn’t already been said? Perhaps nothing. I will let you judge me on that score. But, regardless, I felt compelled to write something, if only to satisfy my conscience that I hadn’t remained silent today.
I write this from two perspectives: as a former Naval Officer who served alongside many fine men and women, both “straight” and LGBT; and as a private citizen who desires our nation’s military to be both robust and honorable to a measure befitting its history and the people it protects. In both regards I find the president’s latest Twitter edict both morally reprehensible, and indefensible as a matter of military necessity.
Military necessity. Unit cohesion. Force readiness. Lethality of force. These impressive-sounding terms are thrown about willy-nilly by people who claim this policy is necessary – for the sake of the military. They are all important considerations for military training, management, and operations. But, as they pertain to people’s sexual orientation, and how they use their genitals while off-duty, they are completely irrelevant.
These tired terms were batted around ceaselessly during the terms of three consecutive presidents to prolong the existence of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” In most cases these very important-sounding military concerns were drug out by politicians who had a stake in keeping the policy alive (most of whom had never worn a uniform).
“We have to keep this policy in place to protect the fighting capability of our military.” That was the argument to keep “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and it’s been resurrected to support Trump’s ban on transgender service members. Just as then, it is now more palatable to cloak exclusion in “military necessity” than to admit it as unabashed bigotry. And, as for military necessity: The problem with that argument, to be succinct, is it’s complete and unadulterated bullshit.
We, as a nation, put the argument for “military necessity” to bed – or we should have – when DADT was repealed under President Obama in 2011. That repeal was overseen by Major General Steven Hummer, a recruiting poster icon of a fighting general, who had led a regiment of Marines into Baghdad during the 2003 invasion, and who would go on to promotion to Lieutenant General and Commander of Marine Forces Reserve – the largest command in the Marine Corps. I think it’s fair to say Gen. Hummer knew a thing or two about keeping the military in fighting form.
When DADT was repealed then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen had this to say about the repeal’s devastating and debilitating effects on military readiness:
“Today, with implementation of the new law fully in place, we are a stronger joint force, a more tolerant force, a force of more character and more honor, more in keeping with our own values.”
Is it possible, in his four decades of honorable service aboard forward-deployed warships, Admiral Mullen had discerned what is necessary to maintain force readiness? Maybe he’d learned that skill set to a greater degree than a president who has never served, and most of whose senior advisers likewise haven’t served.
In the ensuing six years since DADT was repealed the wheels haven’t fallen off the U. S. military. Ships still put to sea. Aircraft still deliver cargo and ordnance. Soldiers and Marines still answer the Republic’s call to carry a rifle anywhere our elected officials deem necessary. In no metric I’ve found is there any indication our military men and women are any less formidable or dedicated than they were six years ago. There’s no indication we’re any less willing or able to administer lethal force around the globe – however you may feel about that.
The reason inclusion hasn’t and never would diminish fighting capacity, as alluded to by Admiral Mullen, is twofold: our nation’s military is stronger when it is inclusive; and to the great majority of men and women in uniform, sexual orientation simply isn’t that important.
I served in the Fleet through the end of the “initial combat phase” in Iraq – when DADT still was in effect. I served aboard a forward-deployed warship with some of the finest men and women I’ve ever met. Some of them were straight. Some of them were openly gay. Some of them hid their orientation until after the repeal. But, by and large, the question of sexual orientation was a non-factor in determining someone’s worth aboard ship.
Unit cohesion, fighting spirit, readiness, lethality – these all were important. They just had nothing to do with sexuality. Everyone judged everyone else based on the answers to two critical questions: “How good are you at your job?” and “If things get really bad, will you do your duty?” If someone was both competent and willing to stick by your side to death, they were closer than family. They were your Shipmate. You shared a sacrosanct compact: if necessary you would die to preserve the ship and execute the mission, and you each would place your Shipmates’ lives above your own.
When you share that kind of bond, questions about differences in sexual orientation are less than trivial. If you can fix the radar that protects the ship; if you can put out the fire and patch the hull; if you’re willing to stand by my side in an inflatable boat between our ship and a contact that may or may not be a terrorist; if you can and are willing to do those things, and maybe die in the process, then I want you. I wanted you by my side when I was there. I want you there now, even as I pray for peace and your safe return home. I want and praise you for your service. And frankly, who or how you love when you’re off duty simply doesn’t matter to me.
To those of you personally affected by the president’s order, I don’t have adequate words. Thank you for serving. Thank you for wanting to serve. God bless you and keep you, and I look forward to a day when this kind of discrimination garners the universal condemnation it so richly deserves.
But, this is not a matter of concern only for transgender service members, or the LGBT community in general. The president’s action represents not only a limited move against transgender service members. This action represents a unique and genuinely terrifying precedent, of a president reversing a step forward that has been made in the advancement of civil liberties.
Our country doesn’t have a stellar record in civil liberties. There still are many areas that need to be addressed, wrongs that need to be righted. And, it’s taken far too long and cost far too much blood for us to reach our current station. But, slow and grudging as our nation’s progress has been, I cannot think of another instance in which a president has turned the bus around, and willfully driven back into the darkness.
That is the precedent that should worry us all – that we’re not only forestalling civil liberties; we are rolling them back, prying equality out of the hands of those who only recently felt its sweet touch. And if that can happen to one group, it can happen to any and all of us. And it can happen with all the due process of a Twitter post.