With extreme prejudice


THE STORY of Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer had a certain deja-vu-all-over-again quality. It might as easily have been the story of Sgt. Leonard Matlovich or Sgt. Miriam Ben Shalom or one of several other soldiers whose job histories included decorations, promotions, excellent evaluations.

For Colonel Cammermeyer, the honors included a Bronze Star for her work as a nurse in Vietnam and recognition as the Veterans Administration Nurse of the Year. None of it made any difference when she was dismissed from the Washington State National Guard, one of thousands of Americans whose exemplary service has paled beside the military's determination to boot gay soldiers.

Many in the service will tell you that this is a difficult issue, as is the question of women in combat and other adjustments the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines have been asked to make to the 20th century.

It is not difficult at all. It comes down to this: Will we continue to support one of America's largest and best-known institutions as it, not simply by custom but by regulation, engages in the rankest forms of discrimination?

The question is particularly apt as the Navy finds itself embroiled in a sickening sexual harassment scandal. If you were wondering where your defense dollars go, almost $200,000 of them were spent to fly naval aviators to a military frat party in Las Vegas last year at which Navy women were passed down a gantlet of their male colleagues, grabbed and mauled in a form of hand-to-hand combat not taught in basic training.

There is wailing and gnashing of teeth about this by the brass, a search for blame and underlying cause. It seems never to have occurred to them that if you treat women like second-class citizens by denying them promotion to combat positions, your male personnel will get the idea that they can treat them like second-class citizens in other ways, too. And that if you make homosexuality the modern equivalent of Godless communism, then hetero conduct in even its most abusive forms may seem sanctioned, even blessed.

The Vegas debacle renders almost comical one fear of allowing gay people into the military. Same-sex propositions seem sedate compared to being pushed down a long hallway of guys with nuclear hands and Cro-Magnon mores.

But that is not the underlying cause of this ban. It is the perceived comfort level of straight male soldiers. The term of art is "cohesiveness," what we civilians might call male bonding. In other words, they may have to fight or serve beside those with whom they lack proper kinship.

This is the argument once used to keep black soldiers in segregated units, a bit of military history that seems unthinkable today. And it's also been used to oppose women in combat. (There's also the argument of the pedestal, the idea that male soldiers will spend all their time protecting their female counterparts. I imagine the admiral's aide would have some choice words about that.)

It's funny to read about a new Navy training program which, for the first time in history, features sexually integrated boot camp. After all the arguments about fatal distractions, they've discovered that putting men and women together actually improves training and fosters the much-vaunted cohesion.

According to the General Accounting Office, the prohibition on gay people in the military costs us at least $27 million a year, given the fact that a thousand men and women are dismissed and replaced. That's an absurd waste of time and money.

But more important is the fact that the military continues to piously justify retaining regulations that are no more than codified prejudice. Officials sometimes say this is the will of the people; if they are keeping track, seven in 10 think women should be permitted to occupy combat positions and 50 percent see no reason to keep gay people out of the military.

Instead of stooping to a comfort level of ignorance, the military should reflect the simple notion of performance as the gauge of job fitness. Besides, maybe their notion of comfort level is all wrong. Maybe there are no homophobes in foxholes.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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