If history is any indication, General George Washington would not be pleased with the current rush to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in America's armed forces. But it seems no one in the Obama administration is listening.
Following the lead of President Barack Obama, America's top two Defense Department officials called today for an end to the military's ban on open homosexual conduct. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both said that it was time to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the United States armed services.
General George Washington, America's first military leader, disagreed. It would have been interesting to have General Washington present for the same hearing. I wonder if Congress would even listen to him, though, given the growing momentum for change.
Washington's position on gays serving openly in the military was seen in March 1778, with the case of Lieutenant Frederick Gotthold Enslin. Enslin was courtmartialed for "attempting to commit sodomy, with John Monhort a soldier" and "for Perjury in swearing to false Accounts."
In a report dictated apparently by Washington and copied out by his staff, the general's feelings are made clear. "His Excellency the Commander in Chief approves the sentence and with Abhorrence and Detestation of such Infamous Crimes orders Lieutt. Enslin to be drummed out of Camp tomorrow morning..."
While some may argue that Washington's primary concern was with Lieutenant Enslin's aggressiveness or breach of protocol, it's more likely that the Continental Army Commander-in-Chief found Enslin's homosexual conduct itself to be "detestable" and a danger to unit morale and cohesion.
Does this make General Washington homophobic? Was our nation's first general an intolerant bigot?
While it would appear that the current policy's days are numbered and that change is indeed coming, I think it would be a mistake to dismiss Washington too quickly. Washington was a man of his times, but we make a grave error if we assume that Washington's times were, in all respects, inferior to our own.
It's true that the United States has enjoyed progress since the late 1700s on many fronts, including the rights and privileges of women and racial minorities. In those areas, we should recognize progress. And, frankly, had Washington lived through all the years of American history, a very compelling argument could be made that he would've evolved and grown WITH the country in terms of his attitudes on racial and gender equality. Washington, after all, changed his views on race in the course of his own life. His trajectory was clearly in the direction of ending slavery and embracing the rights of African Americans.
But the issue of gays in the military is somewhat different. Washington didn't order Enslin's dismissal, because he saw the man has being socially or genetically inferior. He dismissed Enslin, because of the man's actions and how those actions affected the army as a whole. What's more, for Washington, there was something moral at stake. This wasn't a case of social elitism. For Washington, it was a matter of proper conduct and moral behavior.
Indeed, it was Washington who issued another order, forbidding cursing in the Continental Army and challenging his men to conduct themselves as "Christian soldiers." For Washington, moral conduct was fundamental to the success and value of the army. A good soldier was an effective soldier, and a good army was a powerful army. When you allow immorality into the army, you poison its cohesion and effectiveness. That appears to have been Washington's perspective. And that is what lay at the root of his dismissing Enslin.
Lest you think I'm overplaying Washington's sense of morality, recall that, as President, he echoed a similar theme in his Farewell Address. In that speech (published and not delivered), Washington declared that "religion and morality" were "indispensable supports to political prosperity."
I understand that the issue of gays serving openly in the armed forces is a very sensitive and highly emotional one. And I know that, for some, it's difficult to see it as anything but a matter of rights. Nevertheless, I think we should be cautious, before we jettison the wisdom and example of our nation's first (and arguably noblest) military leader.