The Loyalty of Clinton's Generals

DANIEL BERGER

January 30, 1993|By DANIEL BERGER

It was not easy for me as a drafted soldier, long ago, to discern the Army's real policy on homosexuals in the ranks.

There were a couple of guys in our outfit who were pretty open about it and not in trouble.

Once in company formation, before a cold Berlin dawn when everyone made wisecracks the company sergeant couldn't locate, one called attention to himself. I blurted a rejoinder in some way negative.

Afterward, he accused me (the words insensitive or homophobe were not then in the vocabulary) of not knowing that it was the 1950s and that you just had to accept people's differences.

I assured him that I knew it was the 1950s but merely doubted whether the Army did. He was mollified and we were friends again.

Once, on guard duty, I was given custody of a career master sergeant, a magisterial figure the day before, being sent home in disgrace for unstated but nefarious homosexual offense. If he attempted to run away, with pot belly and flat feet, I was to shoot him with the .45 automatic in which I had not been trained but could probably fire.

So what was the Army's real policy then? It did not want to know, but if confronted, would take a dim view. And that is its policy now.

The gay community and the Pentagon agree that there are gays in the military. The Pentagon wants them in their accustomed closet. But the services are part of the larger society, in which the gay rights or gay assertiveness movement is rising. The brass are intransigent partly for fear of more demands from that quarter to come.

Bill Clinton was the first nominee to seek the gay vote. His promise to reverse the ban on gays in the military by executive order gained more votes than it alienated.

Say what you want about the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Sen. Sam Nunn, they read the papers. They were not taken by surprise by Mr. Clinton's intentions.

The man is desperate to identify some promises he can keep, and does not want the gay community joining the chorus about Slick Willie and the clatter of broken words.

Mr. Clinton apparently did not consult beforehand, however, the people who would have to implement his policy. Which was impolitic of him. To effect this change the military way might require years, to identify regulations in need of writing and to plan information programs. Gradualism of implementation is the room for compromise.

But instead, this thing that everyone saw coming has provided the first crisis of the Clinton administration. Make no mistake, it is a true crisis, where the Zoe Baird caper was a blip. It is a crisis because foreign policy is the most important thing a president does. To be taken seriously by the bad people, the American president must be seen as one whose threats are credible, who commands the loyalty of his armed forces and can wield them at will.

The prospect of mutiny in the top ranks is seen in the Third World as the first unraveling of a regime. That's why Saddam Hussein shoots a general every so often as an example to the others. If generals resign over this, Mr. Hussein will take a different view of what he can get away with than if they rally round their commander-in-chief. The same may be said for Radovan Karadzic, the leader of Bosnian Serbs, who is a criminal against humanity and a student of human nature.

Bill Clinton needs a loyal military to take into the Cambodia question, the Somalia predicament, the Haiti matter. He came to office suspect in brass eyes for his draft record and budget intentions. Then he pronounced his certainties about barracks life before consulting the supposed experts, the four-star people who, like him, have not slept in a barracks in decades if ever. He has a greater need than his predecessors to win their favor.

That puts Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the most respected man in Washington, in the catbird seat. He can make or break a brass mutiny, or an unwelcome order.

Meanwhile Mr. Clinton has also offended the mandarins of the Senate and House, which threatens his economic and health policies, the twin pillars of his program.

Not that most senators or representatives want to be counted on the gay issue. My guess is that any straightforward vote in Congress would fail, whether it was to admit gays to the military or ban them.

So this is an authentic political crisis that is of Mr. Clinton's making, with help from his friends.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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