This month, the final hurdle for President Donald Trump’s transgender military ban was cleared, as a U.S. district court in Maryland lifted its injunction in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in January. The Pentagon, however, said that President Barack Obama’s policy to allow transgender service members to openly serve will remain in effect until “further guidance” is issued “in the near future.”
Proponents and opponents of these changes argue their points passionately, but from very different starting points. Those on the Left consistently push for change in the name of diversity, inclusion, and equality for service members. Anyone who makes the cut should be allowed. Those on the Right focus on the issues of readiness, lethality, and tradition. A closer examination of the war on terrorism will reveal why the Left has gone on the offensive and the Right has dug in (though on the wrong hill), attempting to hold the line against change.
The debate over social engineering in the military has only been of public interest rather recently. In 1994, Bill Clinton approved the military’s policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), which allowed gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members to serve but not in an open and transparent way.
This policy remained in effect until 2010 when Obama signed a directive ending DADT. The military came into compliance in 2011. Following these steps, the next hurdle was opening military occupational positions once only accessible to men. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a directive in January 2013 to formally end the prohibition on women serving in various roles across the services, from Marine infantry and combat engineers to special forces like the Navy SEALs.
The Pentagon was given until January 2016 to comply, with the intervening years used to test and evaluate standards, performance, and the effects on readiness and lethality. In December 2015, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, in conjunction with Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, announced that all roles would be opened, overruling exceptions sought for several specialties, most notably in the Marine Corps.
Traditionally, the military as an institution has been understood to be both representative of and separate from the society it served. It is “representative” most notably in the sense that there is civilian control—government officials acting on behalf of their constituents decide when and where armed force is used as a tool for political objectives. The society is further represented in the composition of the ranks. This is manifested in the draft, the citizen-soldier military.
But the military has also been understood to be separate, with its own rules, culture, and traditions. The military’s legal system, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), has never allowed for the liberty that’s enjoyed in American society. Service members can be charged with crimes such as misbehavior before the enemy as in the case of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, or fraternization, because social and sexual relationships between differing ranks undermines “good order and discipline.”
Even freedom of speech, the hallmark of American democracy, has its limits. Recently, several active duty Marines found themselves in hot water for engaging in blackface parodies. The point is that in the military, not all forms of personal expression are allowed and some can be subjected to punishment.
The word “tradition” is key. Traditions are ideas and norms handed down from history that, while not always easy to understand, are accepted because they’re born out of experience. Simply put, they worked. And military tradition, forged through thousands of years of blood and carnage, teaches us that the institution of the military should be a separate society with its own rules that might be at odds with the society it serves. DADT stood unchallenged for 16 years. What changed?
When President Bush told Americans to head to the mall after 9/11 and carry on in good consumerist fashion, the volunteer professional military was headed in the other direction, to war, in Afghanistan and Iraq. The military was asked to defeat an idea: terrorism. The situation on the ground necessitated it to act out of character. We were there to build, train, assist, and bolster the local populace against terrorism and anarchy. In stark contrast to the total war of World War II, professional soldiers trained to shoot rifles and drop bombs were told to help rather than hurt.
Outside the lengthy debate that could be had over how insane this “strategy” was, the idea that the armed forces could do something other than kill the enemy and break his stuff fundamentally altered the public’s conception of what the military had traditionally been: a nasty force tool of last resort. If it was used to show a kinder, gentler side of America, then those traditions and norms could be changed as well. The military profession became just another occupation, a job to draw a paycheck, not especially hazardous or hard. Therefore the Left reasoned justifiably that it should show no deference to gender, sexual orientation, and sexual identity, just as in the civilian world.
The issue with the Left’s stance is that social engineering has added no quantifiable value to readiness and lethality, which is why they never argue for it that way. Every argument for change falls under the umbrella of diversity and inclusion. Taking diversity first, the Department of Defense, despite claiming to be in a continual cash crisis, operates a Military Leadership Diversity Commission. In one of their dozens of decision papers, the commission attempts to define diversity and apply it as a policy to the DoD. The commission notes that the official DoD definition of diversity as defined in 2009 is “different characteristics and attributes of individuals.” Expanding that to reflect the colloquial definition of diversity as protected races and classes, the commission paper found “no direct link between demographic representation and organizational capability.”
The method behind the madness of military indoctrination training is to take diverse groups of people and make them similar: the same uniform, the same haircut, the same chow, the same squad bay. In boot camp, differences aren’t celebrated; they are destroyed, then rebuilt as one. The identity of a service member should be first and foremost a singularity: a Marine, a sailor, a soldier. The nameplate of the diversity car reads “different perspectives make us stronger,” a true statement. But underneath the hood the message becomes “different races and genders make us stronger,” which isn’t necessarily true. Diversity Inc. is thus attempting to replace Marine, sailor, and soldier with a rainbow of identities because “diversity is our strength” or something.
When investigating the arguments of inclusion and equality, the facts don’t support readiness or lethality either. In fact, a decrease in lethality was discovered, as the Marines found when evaluating all-male versus male-female mixed infantry squads during their evaluation phase between 2013 and 2016. Liberals argue the transgender integration angle similarly to how DADT was attacked: you should be allowed to be open about who you are and who you love. But would these same proponents defend the previously mentioned Marines for wearing blackface? They are expressing themselves: who is anyone to judge them? If they demand punishment in that case, then liberals actually agree that in the military, not every form of expression should be tolerated. And indeed these Marines were punished, rightly so. Historically these proscriptions have included other forms of expression like sexuality, not because of hatred or bigotry, but because of norms and traditions that have worked. As General Jim Mattis said in 2015, “when you mix arrows, and you mix affection for one another that could be manifested sexually, I don’t care where you go (in) history, you will not find where this has worked.”
The Right’s contradiction on this subject is in their fundamental lack of engagement in the national debate over what exactly our troops are supposed to be achieving in these wars. On the one hand, they argue for military culture to be defended as is, but then on the other, they want to use this deadly tool outside of its operating range. Besides the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda in 2001 and the AUMF for Iraq in 2003, there has been no congressional vote on war, against Libya, in Syria, or in Africa. Republicans who are holding fast against change are also usually hawkish on defense. Senators like the late John McCain, neoconservative Tom Cotton, and Lindsey Graham have tried to have their cake and eat it too. In the Left’s defense, if the only thing our military should be used for is peacekeeping and regional stability in foreign lands, then it follows that it doesn’t really matter who makes up the force. It can be reflective of American societal norms.
In summary, the military as an institution has moved further from America while simultaneously moving closer. With respect to declaring war and having skin in the game, the military is miles apart from America, and as that separation has widened, the military profession has been pulled closer to America’s current trends in societal norms. These trends are just another manifestation of the civil-military divide. Neither is good for the military and both need to be reversed. The only strategy for the Right is to change fighting positions. They should insist that the military be used only in the traditional way, as a force tool of last resort to kill the enemy and for national defense. Only then can the norms, rules, and traditions be defended justifiably against the Left’s offensive for change.
Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.