Reporting from London — "Scandalous," declared one. "Way off the mark," fumed another.
Top Dutch leaders ditched their usual diplomacy Friday to angrily denounce a retired U.S. general's suggestion that allowing openly gay soldiers to serve in their military was partially to blame for Europe's worst massacre since World War II.
The statement was made Thursday by John Sheehan, a retired Marine general, before a Senate hearing on the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays and lesbians in its ranks. Sheehan opposes President Obama's pledge to lift the ban on openly homosexual soldiers, and tried to cite the Dutch as an object lesson.
But he triggered outrage on both sides of the Atlantic with the suggestion that incorporating openly gay troops had helped dilute the Dutch army's battle readiness, which in turn, he said, facilitated the mass killing of 8,000 Bosnian men and boys by Serb forces in Srebrenica in 1995, during the Balkans war.
Dutch troops made up the inadequate United Nations peacekeeping force in Srebrenica. Critics in the past have found fault with the Dutch conduct there but haven't cited the Dutch military's liberal outlook on gay troops as contributing.
In his comments before the hearing, Sheehan said the Netherlands' decision to "socialize" its military by, in part, allowing gays to serve "led to a force that was ill-equipped to go to war. The case in point that I'm referring to is when the Dutch were required to defend Srebrenica against the Serbs.
"The battalion was under-strength, poorly led, and the Serbs came into town, handcuffed the soldiers to the telephone poles, marched the Muslims off and executed them."
Pressed by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate's Armed Services Committee, Sheehan said Dutch leaders had told him the presence of gay soldiers was "part of the problem."
On Friday, Dutch Defense Minister Eimert van Middelkoop labeled Sheehan's comments "scandalous, and unworthy of a soldier."
"I have nothing more to say about it," Van Middelkoop said. But his boss, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, did.
"Toward Dutch troops, homosexual or heterosexual, it is way off the mark to talk like that about people and the work they do under very difficult circumstances," he told reporters.
The Dutch Defense Ministry denied that former Defense chief of staff Gen. Henk Van den Breemen had ever expressed the sentiments cited by Sheehan.