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The “unit cohesion” fable.

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The ghost of Charlie Moskos, the late Northwestern sociologist who claimed to have coined the phrase “don’t ask, don’t tell,” permeated the Senate hearing last week on whether to finally end the policy that forces gay troops to lie in order to serve. Moskos was a friend of Senator Sam Nunn, who, along with General Colin Powell, led the charge against efforts to lift the ban on gays in the military in 1993. President Bill Clinton cited Moskos in his speech that year announcing the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And last week, Moskos reemerged when Senator Jeff Sessions cited his research in asserting that most of the gay troops discharged under the policy had chosen to leave voluntarily, by telling the truth about themselves. Just like, presumably, they had “chosen” to be gay in the first place.

With the help of Moskos’s sociological expertise—he had earned fame in the military for his scholarship supporting racial integration—the currency of the debate then was “unit cohesion,” that mystical force that ties warriors together in the face of death. In public, Moskos, Powell, and Nunn said over and over that openly gay servicepeople would undermine the bonds of trust that keep cohesion strong, resulting in a weakened military. But in private, Moskos revealed what he really thought. “Fuck unit cohesion,” he told me while I was researching a book on the topic. “I don’t care about that.” For him, the reason to muzzle gays was the “moral right” to privacy. “I would not want to fight for a country in which privacy issues are so trampled upon,” he said. “Those are the conditions of concentration camps.”

Of course, unit cohesion was always a ruse. At least twenty studies reaching back over 50 years have confirmed that the (inevitable) presence of gay soldiers has no impact on unit cohesion. These include research conducted by the military itself, beginning with the Navy’s Crittenden study in 1957 and continuing through today. And the point is borne out by the 25 other nations that let gays serve openly, including Britain. But each time, the military tried to bury these results in the service of an ideology equating heterosexuality with bravery and patriotism.

Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the formation of a “working group” to study the issue some more. A similar “working group” was formed in 1993 during the six-month period that ultimately derailed progress toward lifting the ban. Advisers to that group, including Rear Admiral John Hutson, who later became the judge advocate general of the Navy, echoed Moskos’s private candor, telling me that the group ignored research and simply pronounced homosexuality a threat to cohesion. “Our decisions were based on nothing,” said Hutson. “It wasn’t empirical, it wasn’t studied, it was completely visceral, based on our own prejudices and fears.”

This time around, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, called for an end to the ban (last week Powell threw his support behind the repeal too). And the usual chorus of indignation has begun to sing again, to a slightly different tune. This time, conservative obstructionists are catastrophizing about the impact on “military families” (one retired colonel interviewed on public radio warned about the imagined effects of gay partners in base housing on the “gated community” of conservative soldiery) and on the current effort to fight “two wars” and the mission in Haiti. “Now,” they say, “isn’t the time.” But for those who are morally opposed to equality, it will never be time, and they’ll say anything they can to preserve the ghosts of a simpler past, when polite people didn’t discuss such things.

In his last interview on the topic before his death, I asked Moskos if he might have an emotional, rather than rational, attachment to the policy he claimed to have birthed. He answered with his trademark private candor: “Obviously … I think some of my friends would be disappointed if I turncoated.”

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