Thanks to rule changes issued Thursday by the Pentagon, it will be a little harder to discharge gays from the military because of their sexual orientation. But the misguided "don't ask, don't tell" policy remains, and probably will until the end of the year -- or far longer if some conservative former generals get their way.
Defenders of the Clinton-era policy, which is undergoing a Pentagon review that isn't expected to be completed until December, have uncorked arguments that range from laughable to lucid (but still wrong). In the former category is testimony from retired Marine Gen. John Sheehan at a Senate hearing last week. Without cracking a smile, Sheehan argued that gay Dutch troops were partly to blame for the Srebrenica genocide of 1995, considered Europe's worst massacre since World War II.
The passivity of Dutch troops, which allowed Serb forces to carry out an ethnic cleansing campaign that resulted in the slaughter of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, was a humiliating failure by the United Nations' peacekeeping mission, but until Sheehan's testimony, nobody had ever publicly presented it as evidence that homosexuals were unfit for military duty. (The Dutch army has allowed gays since 1974.) That may be because the notion is offensive and absurd. The Dutch troops were poorly armed and constrained by the U.N.'s rules of engagement. Sheehan's theory that gay soldiers make poor fighters should come as news to the Israeli army, which has admitted openly gay troops since 1993. (For more on the Dutch situation, see today's Op-Ed page.)
On the more lucid side was retired Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill A. McPeak, who wrote an Op-Ed defending "don't ask, don't tell" that appeared in the New York Times this month. Openly gay soldiers, McPeak fears, would undermine unit cohesion. "We know, or ought to, that warriors are inspired by male bonding, by comradeship, by the knowledge that they survive only through relying on each other," he wrote. "To undermine cohesion is to endanger everyone."
A fair point. Except that McPeak never explains why gay and straight soldiers can't be comrades in arms. Presumably, the answer is that some straight soldiers are uncomfortable around homosexuals. Some white soldiers are also doubtlessly uncomfortable around African Americans, but the Army expects them to adapt -- and there's something about being in a foxhole that speeds such adaptation. Soldiers are often young and immature, but military service has a way of turning them into adults. Part of growing up is becoming comfortable with one's own sexuality and tolerant of the differences of others.
Actually, we suspect that many of today's younger soldiers already have reached that stage of development, having grown up in a more tolerant culture. It's their elderly superiors, trapped in old-fashioned prejudices, who still don't get it.