We don’t often think of the military as a progressive institution, but defense policymakers have historically opened the armed services to minorities in response to practical needs for personnel. In the cases of African Americans, women and gay people, the opportunities to serve openly and in integrated units have paralleled, if not preceded, moves for equality in the civilian world. In those ways, the military has contributed, sometimes unintentionally, to the expansion of civil rights, even if that was not the intention of the opening of the services to minorities.
Trump and his allies are using the military to do the opposite. But Trump’s approach relies on outdated ideas that have advanced discrimination in society at large and been proven to undermine military efficiency, readiness or cohesion.
On December 1, 1941, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall wrote in a memo about his concern that the integration of African Americans into the military “was fraught with danger to efficiency, discipline, and morale.” He echoed a worry that the Adjutant General’s Office had asserted in 1940: that racial integration of the military would harm morale and military preparedness. Congressional opponents of integration used similar language, arguing that forcing black and white troops to fight side by side would damage morale, efficiency and unit cohesion.
Fifty years later, opponents of women’s military service, especially women in combat, appealed to the same concerns about morale, efficiency and cohesion to make the case against expanded military opportunities for women. A 1992 report from the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces concluded that women should not only be prohibited from serving in combat but should also be limited even further in the armed forces, because they would undermine “unit cohesion” due to the “lack of privacy on the battlefield,” “traditional Western values” and “sexual misconduct.” One member of the commission, Elaine Donnelly, went even further, arguing that only an entirely male military could protect American security interests.
The early 1990s were also the era of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” and those looking to keep openly gay soldiers out of the service echoed the foes of racial and gender integration of the military. They argued that allowing gay service members to serve openly would undermine military effectiveness and unit cohesion. Gen. Colin Powell testified before Congress that “[t]he presence of open homosexuality would have an unacceptable detrimental and disruptive impact on the cohesion, morale, and esprit of the armed forces.” Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf testified that “the introduction of an open homosexual into a small unit immediately polarizes that unit and destroys the very bonding that is so important for the unit’s survival in time of war.”
The arguments were always the same, and they would be disproved the same way, as well. When the integration of African Americans, women and gays and lesbians into the military occurred, defense policymakers discovered that their fears were unfounded. Even without access to combat roles, women have, as reporter Lizette Alvarez noted 10 years ago, “repeatedly proved their mettle in combat” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before the opening of combat specialties to women in December 2015, servicewomen had earned more than 10,000 combat badges and Bronze Stars.
Not only did policymakers realize their fears of readiness were unfounded, they also realized that discrimination was inefficient and detrimental to the mission. Historian Douglas Bristol has noted that during World War II, barring African American servicemen from combat positions was illogical when the military faced a manpower crisis. Integration also improved unit cohesion. An Army study of racially integrated units in World War II found that white troops had a more positive view of their black comrades after serving alongside them.
The same was true of the decision to allow gay service members to serve openly. Historian Steve Estes has concluded that discrimination against gays and lesbians was more detrimental to the mission than integration, because the prejudicial policy resulted in the discharges of personnel with necessary skills such as critical foreign language proficiency. A RAND Corporation study of homosexuality in the military found that serving alongside gays and lesbians caused heterosexual personnel to develop respect for their gay comrades.
Military integration has not proceeded without difficulty. The increasing number of servicewomen has forced defense officials to confront sexism and sexual violence within the ranks, as well as to reassess a culture that has been enabling servicemen to commit rape and sexual assault long before the broad integration of women into the armed forces. The questions of biological difference and physical abilities that proponents of the transgender ban emphasize remain part of the debate about women in combat. The Army is still trying to work this out regarding standards for entry into combat units and elite forces like the Rangers.
Although never intending to serve as America’s social laboratory, the military has been a progressive force for equality, even if its motive for incorporating minorities has been the pragmatic need for the best soldiers. By annulling the right of transgender personnel to serve openly, Trump is undoing a 70-year tradition of thinking rationally about military readiness when minority groups have petitioned for full and open access to armed service.