09 May 2010

How DADT Could Have Killed The Country

The army was on the brink of total disaster.

They had lost every battle of the war. After suffering heavy casualties they'd been driven from the largest city in the country, watching from afar as the city was set aflame. Sickness soon spread and killed many. Their supplies were virtually gone and there was no prospect of more. Many of them didn't even have shoes. There was almost no food, and little shelter. And it was turning out to be one of the harshest winters in memory. They had no training, no discipline even in battle, let alone while bored in camp. And they faced the combined army and navy of the world's greatest military superpower: over 400 ships off their coast, and vastly outnumbered by the enemy's soldiers on land. Their commanding general had every reason to despair.

Then one freezing February day, Fred walked into camp. A friend of the general's knew of the appalling conditions in the army and thought Fred, who'd been in another army but lost his job there, might be able to help. After talking with him, the general agreed to take Fred on as a permanent member of the staff.

Fred's job? Whip the army into shape. Which he immediately started to do. He reorganized everything, from the arrangements of the tents in camp and location of kitchens & latrines to the training regimen. He insisted on organization and discipline but wasn't afraid to explain the reasons to the men, who'd been used to officers ruling chaotically by sheer intimidation. Fred was known for his foul mouth, and since he spoke several languages, he'd curse in all of them. He put that army through more hell than they were already going through, what with the winter and the starvation and disease and despair and the looming prospect of facing an enemy that could probably wipe them out completely.

But Fred did something else too. He turned that jumbled motley crew of disrespectful ignorant pseudo-soldiers into a trained fighting force. He equipped them with the tactical skills that would over and over again help make the difference between survival and death in later battles. It's now generally agreed that that winter, Fred saved that army from extinction.

And miracle of miracles, that trained fighting force created by Fred actually won the war. They beat back the invader, and the country was saved. Had Fred not showed up and cursed and swore and browbeat those conscripts into a real army, there's a very good chance their country would not have survived.

In the years that followed, cities and towns were named for Fred. Ships and schools and buildings too. Statues of him were put up. A national association to honor him was established. Parades are still held on a day that honors him. All of this is quite understandable, for while the general he worked for usually got most of the attention, fact is that without Fred that general wouldn't have had anything that could reasonably be called an army, and it's likely his record of total defeats would have continued to a disastrous end. Fred did as much as anyone ever had to save the country.

And yet today, Fred would not be allowed to serve in the very army he helped create, whose first training manual he wrote, whose officers still quote him and follow leadership principles he laid down.

Why?

Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Because, you see, Fred was homosexual. No, he wasn't promiscuous about it, and he had an officer's sense of discipline and decorum about his private life. He held to the same standards of military behavior he expected of those he trained. But in today's United States Army, that wouldn't make a difference: if Fred came out, he'd be kicked out. And he was already out when General George Washington hired him to save the army from disaster that winter at Valley Forge.

Fred was Baron Frederick von Steuben, the Prussian officer who'd had to leave Europe under less than optimal circumstances, caused in part by the fact that he was gay. As was his former employer, Frederick the Great. Still, once you lost the protection of a powerful patron like that, being gay was no easy thing in 18th Century Europe. So Fred made his way to Paris, where he ran into Ben Franklin, who realized Fred's skills could probably save the American army. Ben sent Fred on to George, and the rest is history.

But today, if Fred showed up at a recruiting office for the army he helped to create and which saved the country today's soldiers fight for, he'd be turned away as ineligible. You're out? Sorry, you're out.

Tell me why this makes sense. Anyone? Anyone? (BTW, that parade in Ferris Beuller where Ferris sings "Danke Schoen"? It's the annual Von Steuben Day celebration in Chicago) Don't Ask Don't Tell has cost the U.S. Army many millions of dollars to enforce, not to mention the lost investment in training the many thousands of dedicated servicemen and women who've been forced out by a self-defeating homophobic policy which, if in place way back when, would have kept the army from hiring the man who saved it from itself and thus saved the country. How many potential Baron von Steubens have been kicked out by this disastrous policy borne of nothing but irrational and baseless fear and prejudice, one which flies in the face of all experience from every other nation which allows gay servicemen and women to serve openly without discrimination? I shake my head in disbelief.

I'm glad that progress is being made, that today's military leadership realize DADT is stupid and self-defeating and they want to get rid of it. And I note with grim humor that, as in Fred's time, the problem isn't really the Army, it's Congress. The same Congress that failed miserably in its commitment to provide General Washington with the bare essentials for his army to simply stay alive at Valley Forge is now the reason DADT is in place and, apparently, the chief roadblock to getting rid of it. Secretary Gates is an honorable man and I'm willing to trust his judgment about needing a year to study the effects of repealing DADT. But the writing is on the wall. The policy has to go. It's an expensive, self-injuring exercise in futility.

And if it had been in place 240 years ago, it could have prevented the birth of the United States of America.

2 comments:

Joe Conflict said...

Fascinating. I love history, but never knew it...

LDS Brother said...

Word, Rob. Of course, it would be a bit short-sighted to pin everything on one man, but I see the point. Assuming that homosexuality affects a tithe (10%) of the population, 300,000 potential servicemen are blocked from the service.