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Look to the Past: Our Military Grows With Inclusion

BY ON August 28, 2017

In this post, historian Beth Wolny explores US military integration in the wake of trans service ban.

She is introduced by Eric Gonzaba. 

A few weeks ago, President Trump announced his intention to ban transgender people from United States military service. This move reverses the Obama Defense Department’s policy push to allow transgender people to serve openly. Since the sudden announcement, I’ve been happy to read some incredible response pieces on trans military service, including Landon Marchant for the Point Foundation and two great stories from OutHistory.

To make even more sense of this nonsensical action, I reached out to a historian friend of mine who graciously offered some different historical perspective. Lt Col.

Beth Wolny not only has an insanely impressive title I’ll never hold, but she is also a doctoral candidate in the history department at George Mason University specializing in military women’s history. She recently published “Female Marines Guard the Embassies: An Experiment in Social Progress and Cultural Change” in the International Journal of Naval History.

Beth is not an LGBT historian (sigh…), but her research on military integration and her own military service offers a great perspective on military and civilian politics regarding transgender ban.

Our Military Grows With Inclusion

By Beth Wolny

The military rarely, if ever, accepts change easily. The service protested against racial integration, gender integration and homosexual individuals serving openly. In each instance, senior leaders argued changes were unnecessary; that they would threaten cohesion and morale (and thus, it was assumed, combat effectiveness). In sum, it wasn’t worth it. But what is “it”, exactly? When President Trump tweeted that he has consulted with his “admirals and generals” and decided that transgender individuals cannot serve “in any capacity”, he acceded to the military’s desires but not necessarily to the nation’s best interests or even its military’s combat effectiveness.

During and after World War II, the services fought having African Americans in the ranks. U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Thomas Holcomb stated that given the choice between 5,000 white Marines or 250,000 black Marines, “I would rather have the whites.”[1] Despite the need for additional manpower, General Holcomb would have preferred to risk combat lethality than to accept African Americans. The U.S. Navy made African Americans cooks. The U.S. Army created separate ranks, away from the fighting, for African Americans. Yet how combat effective would the U.S. military have been in that war without its African Americans?

Women have faced similar challenges. Marginalized as mostly secretaries until the mid-1970s, women fought for equal pay, recognition and treatment at each step. In 1979, Marine Corps Commandant Robert Barrow stated,

The simple facts are we don’t need them. We can get all the males to do whatever needs to be done . . . so why experiment . . . because someone can make a boast or a claim that you have broadened the opportunity for women.[2]

General Barrow is speaking directly to the military’s constant concern – that politicians may prioritize inclusion to the detriment of combat effectiveness. When a traditional culture – such as the military – experiences any kind of cultural change, there will be pain. There may be violence. It may take a generation for cultural changes to solidify. Then there is growth and actually – a more combat effective military. Women’s roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially as Lionesses and as Female Engagement Team (FET) members, demonstrate how much our military benefits from the inclusion of all. Or do we currently not have the most powerful and lethal military in the world?

Almost a generation ago, Congress passed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), which permitted homosexual members to serve, but in secret. The military moved forward under the auspices that if no one knew the sexual orientation of the other person in the fighting hole, then it did not matter. Did it really matter at all? Or did what matter was whether or not a person could do the job?

The repeal of DADT proved what the military had already learned through racial and gender integration. The most important aspect of any individual serving in any capacity in the armed forces of the United States is whether or not they can do the job – and that means whether or not service members trust that each member of the team is able to do the job. Cohesion and morale grow when individuals trust each other, through tests of capability and endurance. This is task cohesion, and this is what really matters to combat effectiveness. Military leaders more often worry about social cohesion – whether or not members of a group get along or like each other – and assume that social cohesion is necessary for task cohesion.

Marine Corps Commandant Amos went on record about the threats to cohesion and morale, DADT and combat effectiveness. In December 2010 he stated that on the battlefield, “you don’t want anything distracting. . . . Mistakes and inattention or distractions cost Marines’ lives.”[3] Today, service members of any sexual orientation are serving openly and with acceptance. The concerns over “distractions” and cohesion proved unfounded.

All of these concerns are the real reasons behind the reluctance to admit openly serving transgender service members – the desire for the known versus the new; the concern over politicians prioritizing inclusion over combat effectiveness and threats to cohesion and morale (and thus combat effectiveness). While these concerns will certainly require strong departmental policies, solid guidance and strong leadership to implement those policies, they are not reasons to restrict transgender members. Our military grows with inclusion. The integration of transgender individuals will proceed along similar lines to every other instance of integration. The process will be difficult. There may be protest. There may be violence. It may require a generation. Let’s hope it doesn’t, because in the end, it will be worth “it” because it will result in a stronger, more combat effective military.

[1] Nalty, Bernard G., “The Right to Fight: African-American Marines in World War II”, Marines in WWII Commemorative Series, Marine Corps History and Museums Division, https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/npswapa/extcontent/usmc/pcn-190-003132-00/sec1.htm, accessed 7 August 2017.
[2] Robert General Barrow, Session XV, Transcript, December 20, 1991, 8, Archives and Special Collections Branch, Library of the Marine Corps.
[3] Whitlock, Craig. “Marine general suggests repeal of ‘don’t ask’ could result in casualties”, The Washington Post, 15 December 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/14/AR2010121404985.html, accessed 8 August 2017.


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