In a recent issue of the Spectator , the spunky British conservative magazine, there were two articles on aspects of the military culture of the United Kingdom. One, by Alasdair Palmer, dealt with attitudes toward homosexuals in the British army. The other, by Noel Malcolm, discussed the pro-Serbian bias of British government statements on the Bosnian conflict and of senior British soldiers serving with the United Nations forces in Bosnia. The two articles address quite discrepant issues, yet in an interesting way they belong together, and their common if not immediately obvious topic is relevant to every Western democracy. That topic is the character of the military today.
Palmer records the strong anti-homosexual sentiments in the British military and the strong conviction among British professional soldiers that the presence of homosexuals undermines the morale of the troops. Palmer has no sympathy with these sentiments and beliefs. He claims that there is no evidence concerning the alleged damage to military morale, a claim about which one might raise some questions. But he also makes the telling point that, if sexual attraction and sexual play are a morale issue, the presence of women in the armed forces constitutes a much bigger problem than the presence of homosexuals. In support of this point he might have cited recent revelations about the number of pregnancies incurred by women serving on American battleships and about incidents of illicit heterosexual behavior in various branches of the American military.
Malcolm’s article has nothing to do with sex, gay or straight. He shows how official British pronouncements on the Bosnian conflict tend toward a position of moral equivalency between the aggressors and the victims (a tendency that has also characterized a number of official American statements). This bias has an obvious political function. It serves to legitimate the weak response of the Western powers to the Serbian aggression: If the Bosnian government is no better than its Serbian enemies, a stronger Western response is not indicated. But Malcolm makes another point, which links it to Palmer’s theme. It appears that British officers have developed a sense of “military camaraderie” (Malcolm’s phrase) with their Serbian counterparts. In a not-so-subliminal way, these officers identify with the swashbuckling characters on the Serbian side.
Implicit in these two articles is a very important issue: What kind of military do we want to have in our Western democracies? And what kind of military do we need?
One does not have to disagree with the democratic doctrine concerning civilian control of the armed forces or with the ideal of a citizens army to recognize a simple fact: the defining purpose of the military is to kill enemies. Anthropologists continue to argue whether homicidal aggression is intrinsic to human nature, but it is fairly evident that people raised in societies softened by philanthropic moralities have some difficulty turning themselves into killers (or, at any rate, most of them do). They have to be trained to do so. Perhaps, if some anthropologists are right, this may not have been necessary for roving bands of warriors in Neolithic times. It is certainly necessary in modern Western societies, as any drill sergeant in basic training camps will testify.
Consequently, a distinctive military ethos has developed in modern times. It has put constraints on the murderous impulses of the warrior band, introducing values of honor and chivalry, and these values have been codified in such internationally recognized expressions of ius in bello as the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners and noncombatants. But this military ethos has nevertheless preserved the intrinsic character of the bond that holds together a group of human beings committed to lethal violence and prepared to risk their lives in this enterprise. The more reflective interpreters of this ethos have been very much aware of the moral dilemmas it may entail. A classic expression of this awareness is Alfred de Vigny’s novel The Military Necessity ; on a lesser literary level, Herman Wouk’s novel The Caine Mutiny and the play and film based on it illustrate the same moral tension.
There can be no doubt that this same military ethos included a cult of virility. The bonded group of warriors have always been a group of men, in an emphatically macho sense of the word. One may well suspect that there are biological reasons for this, but, be that as it may, the link between the warrior spirit and an ideal of blustering maleness is deeply grounded. There was a song current among mercenaries in the Thirty Years’ War that began with the line “We are a horde of ten thousand swine.” This may not be a morally attractive sentiment, but it accurately reflects an important psychological ingredient of “military necessity.” Like it or not, a measure of swinishness has been intrinsic to what makes soldiers tick. Military professionals know this instinctively; the politicians who dictate policies to them rarely do. And, like it or not, the majority of those who feel at home in these putatively swinish hordes are uneasy (at the very least) if homosexuals want to join; they are equally uneasy, or even more so, with the presence of women.
To avoid misunderstanding, I want to inject a personal observation here. I have never had the slightest problem with the presence of homosexuals in any setting in which I found myself. And I have always disliked all-male groups (they have for me the unpleasant odor of the locker room). By the same token, I would always have made a lousy soldier. The time I spent as a draftee in the U.S. Army (luckily for me, after the Korean war and before the one in Vietnam) was probably the single most miserable episode in my life.
I vividly recall two scenes from my basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. One was bayonet training. We were taught to run at the dummy, plunge the bayonet into its belly, then put our foot into what (if there were a man rather than a dummy) would now have been a mortal wound and jerk the bayonet out again. While we were going through this exercise, we were supposed to yell. I managed the physical part of it, more or less, but I never learned to yell with sufficient enthusiasm.
The other scene was back in the barracks. The lavatory had no dividing walls between the toilets. The men would sit there, noisily defecating in unison, while they exchanged obscene jokes and (probably mendacious) accounts of their own sexual adventures. Or, I should say, many of the men did. Others, myself included, avoided these happy squatting sessions and frequented the lavatory when it was less populated. I have no doubt which group was better fitted for the military.
Now, a good case can be made that much of the present-day military no longer requires the old ethos. Its methods of warfare are highly technological, and its organization is heavily bureaucratized. During my own unheroic term of service in the 1950s there was a noticeable antagonism between the old professional types and the careerists of the “New Army.” Since then the military in all Western countries has become much more technologized and much more bureaucratized, but, as far as I can tell, there continues to be a core group of soldiers, most of them in combat units, who continue to identify with the old ethos and who feel dislike if not contempt for those who are more proficient in public relations than in ramming bayonets into enemy bellies. It is clear that the latter group has few problems with homosexuals or with women serving alongside them, or at any rate no more problems than any comparable male group in civilian occupations. They have also had no problem applying to military life the demented notions of “sexual harassment” foisted on the rest of society by the likes of Pat Schroeder. By the same token, we may safely assume, they are not tempted to a sense of “military camaraderie” with ferocious Serbs in the mountains of Bosnia.
Leaving aside for the moment both moral judgments and personal preferences in lifestyle, we are led by these considerations to a very simple question: What kind of military is needed today by Western democracies? If the only military interventions we can envisage in the future are of the high-tech sort, then we can dispense with the old ethos-including the cult of virility and the swinishness that have always gone with it. Contemporary Britain or America can produce only a limited number of individuals who will charge enthusiastically with a bayonet. But just about any Briton or American can push a button that will send a missile against an unseen adversary. Straights or gays can, men or women can, even people like me can. And the relations between those engaged in this kind of warfare need be no different from relations between people in any other technological or bureaucratic line of work.
I have no expertise in strategic analysis. I strongly suspect, though, that this will not be the only type of military intervention that the interests of Western democracies will call for in the future, especially in the wake of the Cold War. If so, the future will look more like the Bosnian conflict than the 1991 blitzkrieg in the Gulf. In that case, there must be men with bayonets, taking ground and holding it. If the Western democracies lack such men in their militaries, they will be severely limited in their responses to aggression.
Peter L. Berger is Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University.
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