Gen. McPeak’s reasoned and bigoted argument against gays in the military

Obama-supporter Gen. Merrill “Tony” McPeak, Air Force Chief of Staff, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times Friday saying he believed repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy to allow gay soldiers to serve openly would weaken “warrior culture” at a time when “we have a fight on our hands.”

McPeak is not knee jerk. He doesn’t martial strange medical arguments to make his case. In fact, McPeak’s case against gays in the military seems about as good as it’s going to get. Problem is, McPeak is bigoted toward gay people, the same as are most other 72-year-old American men.

McPeak and Obama: Tender comrades (Bruce Ely)
McPeak and Obama: Tender comrades (Bruce Ely)

On the financial argument: McPeak says it actually doesn’t cost that much to discharge gays because most of them are booted early on in the training process. Besides, he says, when he was in charge, the Air Force kicked out 15 times as many people for being too fat and “no one objects to the cost” of kicking out fat people.

But the cost of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is staggering. As Mark Udall said this week in introducing legislation to repeal DADT, and as others have noted since, the government has estimated conservatively that the pricetag for only the first decade of the policy was about $350 million.

On civil rights: McPeak again says that the military rejects people who are too old, young, fat, thin, tall, short as well as people who are disabled and those who are too uneducated, etc. “So why should exclusion of gay people rise to the status of a civil-rights issue, when denying entry to, say, unmarried individuals with sole custody of dependents under 18, does not?”

In all of these cases, save the last and save for gays, however, exclusion is based on a perceived limitation on the part of the applicants to do the job. Fat, tall, short people, et al, simply can’t fit into a cockpit as well, for example, and no one wants uneducated people involved in pretty much anything of significance anyway. Single people with kids we exclude from service out of compassion for and responsibility to the kids.

OK, he concedes, it’s true that gays are being discriminated against not based on perceived ability to do the job or even actual job performance but simply for failing to stay in the closet. But that’s because individual performance is not what matters most in the military, he says. What matters is “unit cohesion.” Combat is a team sport.

It is here that we get to the meat of the argument: McPeak can’t personally see straights cohering with gays. What’s more, he says it’s the attitude of leaders that matters most. Racial integration happened not as a result of Harry Truman’s executive order calling for equality in the armed forces but because leaders eventually got on board. Yet McPeak just can’t go there with “this particular form of diversity.”

Allowing an openly gay presence in ranks will be very difficult until we have committed leadership for it. I certainly had trouble figuring out how to provide such leadership in 1993. While I believed all people are created equal, I did not believe such equality extended to all ideas or all cultures. And since I didn’t know how to advocate the assimilation of this particular form of diversity, I saw no way to prevent it from undermining unit cohesion.

McPeak admits he didn’t know how to advocate for the assimilation of this “idea or culture” and prevent it from undermining cohesion. He can’t see how to do so now. McPeak is not making an argument against gays in the military. He’s making an argument against himself as a 21st century leader. He is demonstrating vision unequal to the task of making the right thing a reality.

To be fair, McPeak doesn’t seem to be asking gays to stay out of the military; he’s asking them to stay in the closet. In McPeak’s day, maybe pretty much everybody gay was in the closet. Maybe that’s why he imagines that staying in the closet is not a great deal to ask.

But a lot of gay Americans are thankfully out of the closet now in all walks of life. And a lot of straight people are just fine with that and they find cohering with gays only as difficult or as easy as it is to cohere with anyone. The reason for this remarkable new reality, as McPeak might understand, is not primarily because of evolving legal codes but because of leadership. If your parents and bosses and friends think gays are OK, then you do too.

In the 1990s McPeak argued against allowing women into the military. Those days are gone. They were gone even then.

Today’s military leaders have to be ordered to step up and make things right and create cohesion between gays and straights because that’s what we need them to do.

McPeak is 72 and he’s retired. That’s as it should be.

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