"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." - Thomas Jefferson (appears in the Jefferson Memorial)

Carlson: The Last Bastion?

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

The impending demise of the military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy regarding the ability of gay Americans to serve their country ably, along with the discarding of the military’s ban on women serving in combat, has led to some interesting conversations around the Carlson kitchen table.

We have four members of the United States Marine Corps in our extended family: a cousin, who is a retired colonel; a son, who is a captain on active duty; and two nephews, who are corporals in infantry units.

Those policies were doomed because they flew in the face of the best thing the military has going for it: the last bastion of true meritocracy in our society. In all branches of the service, how one performs, not who you know or where you were educated or how wealthy your family may be, determines promotion.

Hiding one’s sexual orientation inevitably invites a form of below -the-radar discrimination that impact adversely a gay officer’s ability to advance fairly in competition with straight Marines. Likewise, most Marine advancement is premised in on an ability to lead, especially in combat. Restricting women from leading in combat zones discriminates against fair advancement.

It was inevitable that policies running counter to the principles of meritocracy, as they did, were destined to be tossed.

Understanding the context in the evolution of these issues helped me to place such outcomes in an historical framework.

First, one has to grasp the sea-change that occurred when the U.S. military went from draft-dependent to the all-volunteer in 1973. This was a politically driven decision in the aftermath of the Vietnam debacle.

In order to attract volunteers, the military had to offer better pay and more benefits. And, being a meritocracy, this inevitably opened up more opportunities for women and minorities to gain their slice of the American Dream.

Keep in mind also the known inequity of the casualty rates in Vietnam. Because the draft snagged more low-income and less-educated men, a disproportionate number of those killed and wounded in the Vietnam conflict were African-Americans and/or poor whites from rural America. There weren’t that many children of affluent families or members of Congress who were lost.

Much to the surprise of many, the all-volunteer force took off and thrived. Congress, in the meantime, continued to provide decent funding levels, as well as wage increases in excess of the cost-of-living index.

Another consequence of this was a concomitant improvement not just in the regular military, now peopled with folks who wanted to be there, but also in the quality of those serving in the reserves and National Guard.

As in any other profession, statistics say that 10 to 15 percent of the workforce could have a homosexual orientation. The military command’s way of dealing with it was to advance the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy which the brass felt still would enable the military to maintain morale and discipline. Experience has largely shown this to be true.

By repealing this policy (but wisely giving the military six months to implement), Congress and the President are signaling our readiness to have gays openly serve and that previous concerns regarding morale and discipline no longer exist.

In dropping the ban on women being in and leading units in combat zones, the military also is acknowledging the changing character of warfare. There is no longer a line on the map signaling “the front.” Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that the combat zone is all around one. Women have shown they can perform as well as men in that situation.

More challenging though may be the moral issue homosexuality poses for many. The Uniform Code of Military Justice calls it a crime. (It will now be rewritten.) Many religious traditions treat it as deviancy and see homosexual conduct as sinful. Changing these religious-based attitudes will probably prove to be the longer-term challenge.

For now, the military will carry out the orders of its civilian command structure. One suspects true acceptance and understanding will come with time and the advent of a younger generation of leaders raised in a more tolerant and accepting environment.

Preserving the last bastion of meritocracy is the winner.

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