Friday, September 23, 2011

War Movies, Gays and the Military, and a Sorry Show of "Patriotism"

I do not want to give heartless, opportunistic politicians too much sought-after publicity.  But I have to comment on what caused a big stir at last night's Republican Presidential debate.  Just a day after"don't ask don't tell" law had been lifted, a question was asked, via video, by a gay American soldier (Steven Hill).  Hill, who is serving in Iraq, was booed by some members of the Fox News audience.

And the question, which was given to hapless candidate Rick Santorum to answer, was this: whether the candidates, and the Republicans, would work to circumvent the repeal of the discriminatory law that forbade gay personnel to be open about their sexuality. 

Santorum began with:
"I would say any type of sexual activity has no place in the military."  Which is exactly the place in the military.  And sexuality should not be made an exclusionary matter either. 

It makes me crazy that the party that wants to abolish government controls entirely, supports the most intrusive government controls when issues block the narrow view of the world they want to see.

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I have always had an ambivalent attitude toward the military.

My father was in Germany right after WWII to assist in the reconstruction, just before he went to college on the GI bill.  He speaks with affection of his year in Munich.

My attitudes about war and the armed forces were shaped in part by images from the movies.  Everything from "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "The Longest Day", to "Patton, "MASH", "Coming Home", "Apocalypse Now" and "The Deer Hunter", among others, wrestled for my heart and mind.

Of course it wasn't that simple: Context was everything.  Unless you know the social climate and political environment that produced a work like "Hair", for example, you would not understand the deep emotional chord that is struck within those who absorbed the anxiety of the time.

Those movies did not look too closely, nor raise the possibility that any of their characters might be gay---except, of course, in a derisively satiric way (like Painless the Dentist in "MASH").

And so I adopted a vast array of opposing thoughts and emotions about military service, about honor and camaraderie and, later, about the suffering and madness of war.

I learned to respect the hard work of earnest people who honestly believed they were defending the lives, and the best ideals, of America.  I also began to question, and then disdain, the hypocrisy, bureaucracy and outright dishonesty practiced by the military, which some of these movies sought to portray.  I ceased to buy in to the heroics, the unquestioning patriotism that was the order of the day in early Hollywood war pictures.

And so I had a personal tug of war with the issue of gays serving in the military.  Of course, I loathed the reasons that gays were banned from service, and then allowed to serve as long as they lied about their lives and loves (while straight boys were encouraged to make vulgar displays of their heterosexual "prowess"). These same reasons were used as arguments against allowing a racially integrated military, or allowing women in combat positions.

But while I wholeheartedly supported the rights of gay people to serve openly, I also questioned why gay people (for whom I retain a romanticized, even stereotyped view as especially intelligent and sensitive, ) would want to be a part of an organization that reduces thinking people to blind obedience, preserves a culture of macho violence, and asks its soldiers to risk injury or death on often dubious pretexts.

I would not dream of denying anyone their life's passion or fulfillment, and if serving in the armed forces provides that, then one should pursue that path.  However, I think there would be poetic justice if gays suddenly, deliberately, boycotted military service. 


  1. Brillianty written, Tom. Possibly the best, and most heartfelt piece I've read on the subject! I always think its so absurd when I hear the Republicans, like Santorum, who spout their same illogical talking points about gays and how they apparently have the corner on the market for sexual activity. As if the entire hetero world is impotently relegated to watching sports while gays are embroiled in their all-consuming past-time of having sex. Do they even know how utterly stupid that sounds? No, they don't, and that's why it's both sad and scary since morons like Santorum are allowed to take there foolish ideology with them to the polls.

  2. Tom, Thank you for your kind comments. (Actually, I just made some corrections to some exhaustion-induced. embarrassing should read much better now!)
    I am always encouraged by your visits, and support. Your succinct, well-written statements enhance my views, and are always appreciated.

  3. Oh god - that Fox News moment was atrocious. The boos from the audience, hopped up on rhetoric and Bill O'Reilly, immediately following the video question were disturbing.

  4. Thank you for your post, Tom.

    We need to ask Santorum, and the rest of the candidates who potentially support bringing back DADT (and I suspect ambition to re-change the law is significantly lower than the rhetoric) to spend a week at work not discussing their home life for fear of divulging their marital status. In theory it wasn't even the DADT policy that was the issue but the fact that gay men and women would have lost their job if they did tell.

    I agree with Santorum that sexuality activity has no place in the military but that's hardly an appropriate argument when there are women in the front line. Sexual and romantic relationships within the forces should be frowned upon and dealt with on a case by case basis regardless of the sexuality of the participants.

    With regards to your last point, I hope you are wrong Tom. I speak with a little authority on this but joining the Armed Forces is not just a job that people choose to do. It's a calling, a way of life that means so much than who you sleep with. It is for that reason that the fight for equality is worth fighting. Instead I hope to see every gay member of the forces come out so Santorum can see the size and depth of the commitment and sacrifice they make on a daily basis.

  5. I want to emphasize that I respect those who find their calling, whether in the military or elsewhere.

    On the very day of the repeal, the Marines accepted an invitation to recruit at a gay Resource Center in Tulsa. The response was not overwhelming; but, at least in the story I read, it appeared like a sincere attempt to make amends, and not an exercise in opprotunism.

    Of course, US armed forces are seeing a drop in personnel. I have mixed feelings about them rushing to fill the ranks with people they were discharging up until last week, drawing from a well they have repeatedly spit into for so many years.

    Gay people have turned away from callings as powerful as the Catholic Church, on principle. I would expect a similar soul-searching when it came to joining the military, and would expect the military to earn our trust.