Mission critical

Observations on the US army

As the bloodshed in Iraq continues, it is hardly surprising that the US army is having problems with recruitment. It was short of 2,500 captains and majors this year and expects the number to rise to 3,300 in 2007. In their desperation, Pentagon leaders have sought to cover the shortfall by relaxing enlistment standards on age, physical fitness and criminal records. But not, as yet, on sexual orientation. Under the current "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" rule - a vintage Clinton compromise - recruits are not asked about their sexuality, but anyone found to be gay can still be thrown out.

More than 1,100 US service members have been discharged on these grounds since Bill Clinton's policy was introduced in 1993, and 800 of those were, in the department of defence's own terms, "mission-critical". They included 322 foreign-language specialists and at least 55 Arabic experts. Replacing people because of their sexuality has cost more than $200m in a ten-year period.

Dismissal is often not the only punishment for gay soldiers. In an army-wide poll conducted in 2000, 80 per cent of respondents reported having heard offensive speech, derogatory names, jokes or negative remarks about gay men or lesbians in the previous 12 months. An even higher percentage believed that military officials tolerated this to some extent.

And there is worse. I interviewed a witness to an incident in which a young gay man was attacked and "bruised up pretty bad" by his peers. "The drill sergeants just turned a blind eye," he told me. "One drill sergeant actually walked in during it with a bag of popcorn, and everybody froze. But he just said, 'I didn't tell you to stop.'"

Yet still it is estimated that there are 65,000 homosexuals serving in the US military, prompting one gay acquaintance of mine to ask: "Why in God's name are people willing to go out and die in the desert for a country that doesn't even recognise their right to be there?"

According to Steve Ralls of the Servicemembers Legal Defence Network, based in Washington, DC, "Gay Americans want to serve their country for all the same reasons heterosexual Americans do." One thing the army does is foot a large part of the bill for a college education, which can be very expensive. Ralls also says that many just want to escape small-town backgrounds, which can be even less welcoming than the army.

"I know the problems I'm facing now, with people's intolerance, are problems I'll be facing for the rest of my life," says one gay soldier, John, who comes from South Carolina. "Perhaps if I die for a 'noble cause', it might just be easier. And maybe people would tell my story. Maybe it will help further the cause, so one day someone wouldn't have to go through what I did."

He says that this feeling privately motivates many gay service personnel. "When you're hanging out, and alcohol kind of loosens the tongue, a lot of people admit that's why they're doing it."

Perversely, the conflict in Iraq might be an opportunity for John and his friends, just as the Second World War gave African Americans the chance to establish a status in the armed forces they had not previously enjoyed. If the war drags on and the recruitment crisis continues, the army may simply not be able to forgo the estimated 41,000 people who say they would enlist if the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was scrapped.

But such acceptance will have been bought at a high price. At least 25 gay soldiers are known to have died in Iraq, and the real total could be much higher. Worse still, the rules could change, yet the army might remain a self-abnegating option for gay people.

"I don't really have a death wish," John says. "But in the military you get to put on the uniform of a straight man, and just go on and live your life and not have to worry." And then he smiles and shrugs. "At least not till you get out . . ."

This article first appeared in the 28 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Blogs plc