Archive for Don’t ask don’t tell

You didn’t ask, but I’ll tell you anyway…

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2010 by telescoper

I just chanced across the news that the United States Senate has voted to repeal the policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”. This silly rule required gay servicemen and women to conceal their sexual orientation or risk being kicked out of the services. It was always an awful compromise and I’m glad to see it has been scrapped.

One of the arguments used against allowing gay people to be open about their sexuality while in the armed forces was that this would be “bad for morale”. I’m not quite sure why, but that’s what people say. Perhaps what it means is that a lot of straight military personnel are deeply prejudiced and that it would be bad for morale to have that prejudice challenged.

Until 2000, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence imposed an outright ban on lesbian and gay people serving in the armed forces. However, in 1999 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that ban illegal. Now, at least officially, the MoD has a much more open and inclusive policy. One regularly sees official representation at Gay Pride marches and so on. Indeed, in 2008, General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, said in a speech that

respect for gays, lesbian, bi-sexual and transsexual officers and soldiers was now “a command responsibility” and was vital for “operational effectiveness”

It would have been hard to imagine even ten years ago that a senior officer in the British Army would make such a statement. I’m sure openly gay soldiers still have a pretty tough time in the army, but we’re heading in the right direction. Times have changed.

But all this is perhaps not as new as you might think.

I’m now going to bore you with a bit of history that might surprise you. The elite division of the Theban army in the 4th Century BC was an outfit called the Sacred Band of Thebes. This consisted of about 300 men, hand-picked for their courage and fighting skill. Or not so much 300 men, but 150 same-sex (male) couples; this was the legendary Army of Lovers. Obviously there wasn’t any need for “don’t ask, don’t tell” in ancient Thebes.

The inspiration for this special unit derived from Plato who, in the Symposium, said

And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their beloved, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?

Initially the members of the Sacred Band were scattered among the rest of the soldiers, in order to raise morale (!), but later on they were all united in a single fighting division, the “special forces” of the Theban army. They were responsible for several famous victories, including the Battle of Leuctra which established Theban independence from Spartan rule.

But brave and steadfast though they were, they eventually met an adversary that even they couldn’t withstand. At the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC they fought an army led by Philip II of Macedonia one of whose generals was his son, a young man by the name of Alexander. The Macedonian army had a new infantry tactic that gave it the edge over all armies of its age. This was the phalanx, a large but tightly bunched and highly disciplined group of soldiers with interlocking shields and bristling with spears, which was impervious to cavalry and archery alike. A few years later when Alexander became King of Macedonia and set off on his journey to Greatness, the phalanx continued to be the mainstay of his army and it allowed him to defeat huge forces at least five or six times the size of his own.

At Chaeronea the fearsome phalanx made mincemeat of the rank and file of the Theban army. In the face of the Macedonian onslaught, the Sacred Band stood its ground to the last, but their resistance was futile. At the end of the battle, their corpses were found piled one on top of the other. They hadn’t given an inch, but all had died where they had stood. The Army of Lovers was no more.

In about 300 BC the citizens of Thebes erected a memorial to the Sacred Band where they had been buried, with full military honours, by Philip II’s soldiers, at the spot where they had fallen. When this was excavated in 1890, 254 skeletons were found, neatly arranged in rows.

The point I’m trying to make with this bit of ancient history is that our attitudes to sexuality are not built in. They’re all formed by social conventions. In fact, bisexuality was quite normal in Ancient Greece, so nobody had any reason to think of homosexuality as some kind of “otherness” that could be a focus of discrimination. Alexander the Great himself had relationships with both men and women and, although he was clearly a megalomaniac and not at all a nice person, he was undeniably rather good at being a soldier.

There’s therefore no reason why gays and lesbians shouldn’t serve with distinction in the army, or anywhere else for that matter. The problem’s not with them, but with the rest of you.


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