This week, ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ has come back into the news. Obama promised on the campaign trail he’d scrap the rule, but hasn’t. On Tuesday, Rachel Maddow interviewed Air Force pilot Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbech, who’s being kicked out because he came out. And this is a man who served 18 years and earned nine medals, including a medal for valor. Another Army platoon leader, fluent in Arabic, is also getting the boot.
Should gays be allowed in the military? Of course. No question. But I’d be surprised if it happens anytime soon.
Because then our troops would have nothing left to joke about.
I’m serious, sort of.
Over the last couple years, I’ve had the privilege to spend a lot of time with American combat forces in Iraq, and, more recently, in Afghanistan. If there is one persistent form of humor it is this: jokes about homosexuality. Lots and lots of gay jokes. So many that, on my last embed, a soldier told me this gem: “When my family asks what it’s like to be in the Army,” he said. “I tell them it’s like a 24-hour gay joke.”
The homophobia in the military is akin to the homophobia in locker rooms or frat houses. The reason the military won’t allow in gays is the same reason we don’t know what professional athletes are gay. It’s not part of the culture. In this kind of atmosphere, you find the type of language that you get when you isolate a bunch of dudes in testerone scented quarters. Jokingly, I’ve seen soldiers sit on each others laps, pretend to blow kisses and then some, while continually make sexually suggestive comments to one another. On one embed, the soldiers showed me a video of another solider touching the penis of a donkey. (I won’t name the unit, but it could have been a bad YouTube hit.)
The humor is not meant as malicious, I don’t think, and these are on the whole good guys. It’s just what gets joked about. Call it barracks humor, or call it an homoerotic environment.
This isn’t new: read From Here to Eternity or The Thin Red Line. And this isn’t limited to the U.S. Armed forces–I’ve heard Iraqi and Afghan soldiers make gay jokes, too. In Afghanistan, which has a culture of man on man sex, the American soldiers I spent time with were always worrying/joking that the Afghan guards were checking them out. One private joked that he wanted to sue Hamid Karzai’s government for sexual harassment because an Afghan guard had taken a particularly intense liking to him.
The culture of the military is in many ways reactionary–they stand apart from us civilians, and like to believe that they represent the best of American values, harkening back to a kind of Leave It To Beaver world. This may have its positives, for sure. They’re willing to risk their lives for us. But on some level, the resistance to letting homosexuals in has nothing to do with morale. It has to do with maintaining the macho ideal, a desire to maintain some kind of imagined tradition. A place where men can still be men. And making jokes about gays is part of that. (I’m not condoning the homophobic atmosphere. As I mentioned, I think it’s an unjust prejudice for the military to hold onto. These are just things I’ve observed.)
Military officials probably won’t ever say it like this, but it’s also one of the last politically incorrect things those in uniform can joke about freely. Women, Blacks, Hispanics, Arabs–not cool, off limits, have to be careful about that! Gay jokes, though, are a dime a dozen; they almost always get a laugh.
So maybe it is about morale after all.