But he also lobbed the latest grenade in a long-simmering conflict over the identity of soldiers and the meaning of the military in American life — a duel between those who see the armed forces as an exclusively martial male, straight, and largely white and Christian enterprise, and those who recognize that the military must reflect the diversity of the U.S. population.
The military has long been a flash point for social conflict because it operates as a legitimizing institution in American life. Citizenship has historically intertwined with military service, and once the military recognizes a marginalized group as an equal member of the services, it legitimizes them in civil society as well.
This debate over who can be a legitimate soldier is a recurring feature of the history of inclusion and exclusion in the military. In World War I, military leaders fretted about the large percentages of foreign-born — often Catholic and Jewish — immigrant soldiers. In World War II, the government initially excluded Japanese Americans from military conscription before reversing course and allowing them to enlist. The military also segregated African Americans and limited them to menial jobs until 1948. Women, too, have historically been excluded from many military spaces, facing significant discrimination and harassment as they gained access to more military occupational specialties including, now, combat positions. Gay and lesbian personnel served in the closet until five years ago, fearing discovery of their sexual orientation would produce courts-martial and dishonorable discharges.
In all of these cases — race, religion, country of origin, gender, sexuality — political and military officials mobilized the language of “efficiency,” “effectiveness,” “readiness” and “disruption” to exclude people from service. But in each case, the military also eventually changed its policies and used the very same language to promote inclusion on the basis of creating an “efficient,” “effective” and “ready” fighting force.
Since the turn to an all-volunteer force in 1973, the urgent need for manpower has promoted ever greater inclusion: of racial and religious minorities, of women, of gays and lesbians, of immigrants and of transgender people. The pragmatic need for people to fill and sustain the ranks undergirded these shifts, whether enacted by a commander in chief, the military hierarchy or civilian legislation. When the Obama administration dismantled “don’t ask, don’t tell” and then allowed for the inclusion of transgender people, it followed in the path of opening the military to new people to meet the needs of the force.
Neither the inclusion of transgender people nor the changes in personnel before it constituted, as critics have charged, “social engineering” in a prospective, calculated sense. But inclusion has had consequences. The military has been a participant in and sometimes even an unintentional driver of social change. When forced to train, worship, sleep and eat together, Americans have learned about one another and often realized — as frequently memorialized in World War II-era novels and movies — that shared experiences can overcome divergent backgrounds.
The military included Catholics and Jews as chaplains even as anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism reigned in U.S. public life. The military desegregated prior to public schools. The military opened staff corps positions to women as the Equal Rights Amendment failed to be ratified. The repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell preceded the Supreme Court decisions in Windsor, which struck down the Defense of Marriage Act for treating same-sex and opposite-sex couples differently under federal law, and Obergefell, which legalized gay marriage nationally.
This tradition of opening the military to marginalized Americans derives from pragmatic rather than progressive views. But once the military recognizes these groups as equal, it becomes harder for civilian society to overtly retain prejudices and rescind (or forego) civil rights.
There is nothing pragmatic about excluding transgender people from the military. Trump’s announcement followed the script of conservative members of the House of Representatives who just weeks ago attempted to roll back transgender inclusion by citing the purported costs in surgeries and hormone treatments, money they assert could instead be spent on weapons or training.
In fact, the costs to the military will be greater if the policy is rolled back. Not only does the inevitable litigation tie up funds, time and people, but the loss of transgender people will undermine readiness. There are transgender personnel who, much like the discharged gay Arab and Farsi linguists under the don’t ask, don’t tell regime, perform essential military duties. It is the fear of recognizing the military as a diverse, integrated institution and of seeing transgender people in uniform that drives Trump and others to try to restrict military space to cisgender people: If the military accepts them, civil society will, too.
The military is both a machine of war and a machine of social change. In fact, these roles are interdependent. In the early 1970s, after commanding swift boats in Vietnam, Chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt recognized women as “a vital personnel resource” and insisted on “according women equal opportunity.” As a result, he later remarked, “there’s a good deal of indecision as to whether I am a drooling-fang militarist or a bleeding-heart liberal.”
It is precisely because the military wages war that it can enact large-scale social transformation. The need for a sufficient supply of bodies to fight has been the primary driver of a more diverse military population, which, in turn, has pressured American society to recognize diversity as a benefit. Despite Trump’s single-handed decision to ban transgender Americans from the armed forces, history suggests that military need will ultimately overturn discriminatory impulses — and be a stronger institution as a result.