A model for gays in the military?

Peter W. Bardaglio

August 13, 1993|By Peter W. Bardaglio

DRAWING historical analogies can be treacherous business. Nonetheless, doing so can help us make sense out of the twists and turns of human experience. The trick is to pick the right analogy. Policy-makers in the 1960s, for example, viewed the Vietnam War through the lens of Nazi aggression and ended up completely misunderstanding the nature of events in Southeast Asia.

Participants in the debate over gays in uniform are also running the risk of seeing the past through the wrong lens. Commentators and those in favor of lifting the ban against homosexuals in the military have repeatedly invoked the parallel with the racial integration of the armed forces in 1948. This may not be the most suitable historical analogy, however.

Supporters of gay rights argue that the attempt to end Jim Crow in the service 45 years ago provoked a similarly hostile response that eventually died down once integration took place. But the issue in 1948 was how African-Americans would serve in the military, not whether they serve. That question had already been decided as far back as 1862.

That was the year the War Department announced that it would begin recruiting African-Americans to serve in the Union forces. Following the firing on Fort Sumter by Confederate forces in April 1861, blacks and their allies pressed the federal government to authorize the recruitment of African-Americans.

Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist, put the argument most eloquently: "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters 'U.S.,' let him get an eagle on his buttons and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on Earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship."

Opinion in the top ranks of the Union military about the wisdom of arming African-Americans was divided. Although Gen. Ulysses Grant supported the move, his friend William Tecumseh Sherman expressed serious reservations about it.

"I have had the question put to me often," said Sherman. "Is not a Negro as good as a white man to stop a bullet? Yes: and a sand-bag is better; but can a Negro do our skirmishing and picket duty? Can they improvise bridges, sorties, flank movements, etc., like the white man? I say no."

Widespread doubts about the combat effectiveness of black soldiers meant that they often found themselves behind the lines, garrisoning forts and guarding supply lines, or performing menial tasks such as unloading wagons.

As the war ground on, however, the growing demand for soldiers, together with mounting resistance among Northern whites to the draft, led the federal government to step up its recruitment of free blacks and former slaves, and to employ them increasingly in combat.

Indeed, by the end of the Civil War nearly 200,000 African-American men served in the Union forces, constituting roughly 10 percent of the total. Black regiments played key roles in several important battles during the final year of the war, particularly Grant's siege of Petersburg, a major rail center below Richmond, Virginia.

Despite the crucial contribution made by black troops to Union victory, African-Americans had second-class status in the military during the Civil War. They were restricted to segregated units, their officers were almost all white, and black soldiers were paid much less than their white counterparts. There were fewer than 100 black officers in the Union army and no African-American was allowed to rise above the rank of captain.

Nevertheless, under the pressure of fighting a prolonged civil war, Northern whites came to accept the presence of blacks in the military and the military came to employ them in combat.

Similarly, Randy Shilts, in his recent book about homosexuals in the U.S. armed forces, "Conduct Unbecoming," points out that the military has all but suspended enforcing the ban against gays during wartime.

The difference is that official recognition has never been granted to gays in the military, as it was to blacks. And when peacetime returns, the military has always resumed enforcement of the prohibition against gays.

The major argument against lifting the gay ban has been that doing so would undermine unit cohesion and that homosexuals would pose a security risk. Opponents to racial integration of the armed forces contended in the late 1940s that the morale of our fighting forces would be similarly jeapoardized and that we could not afford to risk the nation's combat readiness in the midst of the Cold War.

Even after President Truman issued an executive order ending segregation in the military, the Army resisted. While the Navy and Air Force readily agreed to provide African-Americans equal treatment, the Army took until January 1950 to adopt an integration plan, and then did so only half-heartedly.

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