The few. The proud. The problem. Can the Corps' warrior ethos accept openly gay Marines?
Tammy S. Schultz is director of national security and joint warfare at the U.S. Marine Corps War College. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Marine Corps University.
After 17 years, "don't ask, don't tell" may finally be on its way out. Even if the Senate resists the latest efforts to end the policy, it appears that most members of the military - from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on down - support the law's repeal.
But there's one part of the military where resistance is greater than in any other: the United States Marine Corps.
That is clear from early reports about a survey sent to 400,000 active duty and reserve service members on "don't ask, don't tell" that will be officially released next month. More than 70 percent of respondents, spanning all branches of the military, said the effect of repealing the prohibition on openly gay troops would be positive, mixed or nonexistent. But about 40 percent of the Marine Corps respondents expressed concern about lifting the ban.
Top Corps leaders, past and present, haven't been shy about stating their concerns. While serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace said in 2007 that "homosexual acts between individuals are immoral and . . . we should not condone immoral acts." (He later clarified that the comment reflected his personal religious views.) While serving as Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Conway told reporters in August that "an overwhelming majority [of Marines] would like not to be roomed with a person that is openly homosexual." Most recently, the current commandant, Gen. James Amos, while expressing support for the survey, echoed Conway's comments, eliciting a mild rebuke from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen.
What is it about the Marines? Compared with the other services, why do a disproportionate number of them overtly resist ending "don't ask, don't tell"?
I have studied, taught and interviewed Marines for 15 years and have gained great appreciation for the history and culture of the Corps, so much so, in fact, that I began teaching at the Marine Corps War College in Quantico almost three years ago.
Marines have survived and thrived as a service in part because they exemplify everything warrior. (I have never seen as many trucks with gun racks as I do driving on the Quantico base.) They pride themselves on being the toughest service, serving in the most austere environments under the most demanding circumstances. This pride has been forged throughout history, from Iwo Jima to Khe Sanh, from Fallujah to Helmand province.
In the Corps, the creed that "every Marine is a rifleman" means that no matter the Marine's specialty, he or she is ready to fight. Marines do battle where the stakes are high and the quarters close. Although they have individual specialties, they all have infantry in their blood.
As a rule, ground pounders are more conservative, resistant to change and likely to uphold tradition. This equates to a fear of the unknown - in this case, serving in combat with an openly gay Marine.
Every Marine sees himself or herself as on the front lines, if not at the moment, then ready to deploy at any time. The Marine Corps is a smaller service than the other branches, with a greater singularity of purpose. That attitude is part of Marine Corps exceptionalism broadly, as well as when it comes to the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Anything that could dilute the warrior ethos will face a challenge.
I am an openly gay woman, equally comfortable at Quantico and in Dupont Circle. Each of these worlds holds negative stereotypes about the other, and like all stereotypes, they tend to break down on an individual level. Yet for some in both cultures, the notion of a gay Marine seems almost impossible, as though this most masculine and punishing service simply isn't for gay people.