Generals Out of Step

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It was just the coincidence of the timing that made me think of it. Early last week, I read the obituary of Major General Jeanne Holm (USAF, ret.), who had just died at the age of 88. General Holm was notable for being the first female General in the Air Force, and the first Major (two-star) General of any branch of the U.S. military. 


General Holm had joined the Army in 1942 and transferred over to the new Air Force in 1948. At the time Holm was promoted to full Colonel, in 1965, women were not only restricted in what jobs they could perform in the military, they were also restricted to comprising no more than 2 percent of the Armed Services and couldn't hold a rank above Colonel (or Captain, in the Navy). What's more, each service could only have one woman at that level of rank. By law. 

But what intrigued me wasn't Holm's promotion to General once the rank restriction was lifted at the end of the 1960s, as the women's movement gained steam. It was the fact that, fed up "to the eyeballs" with the "garbage" her male colleagues were throwing at her (as she put it), and the resistance she was encountering to opening up more roles and opportunities for women in the Air Force, Col. Holm put in her retirement papers in 1970. A new General in charge of personnel apparently talked her out of it, and Holm became the first Air Force General the following year. But one of the "old guard" individuals who had opposed her efforts and contributed to her frustration was reportedly General Curtis LeMay, Chief of the Air Force. 

LeMay, who a quarterly journal on women in the military quoted in 1986 as saying that "Married Air Force women lack commitment and single ones are 'queer,'" is better known for his strident advocacy of preemptive nuclear war against Russia in the early 1960s. But I thought of him a few days later while reading an op ed piece by retired Air Force General Merrill A McPeak -- Chief of the Air Force from 1990 to 1994 -- arguing against lifting the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" restriction on gay military service personnel.

McPeak's arguments were classic 1993, as if no new information or change had occurred since then. He talked about how "unit cohesion" (including that of fighter pilots) was inspired by "male bonding" as if women had never been integrated into combat positions -- including the role of fighter pilots -- despite the fact that the military has had women in those positions for over 15 years. 

He argued that since most homosexuals were dismissed early in their training (adding that most of those dismissals would have happened anyway, because they were discharged for unacceptable conduct, not just their sexual orientation, which would appear to muddy his argument somewhat), the "cost" that people refer to, in terms of lost personnel, is not significant. But he makes no mention of the lost talent, which is really what people are referring to when they refer to the "cost" of discharging talented military personnel with clear potential, based solely on their sexual orientation. 

McPeak argued about the damage, in terms of morale, cooperation, performance and cohesion, of incorporating homosexual personnel, without any note of the increasing body of evidence to the contrary--including the studies and sources included in this award-winning JSQ article by Air Force Col. Om Prakash, published last fall. 

What's more, McPeak's view that since commanders don't want to have gays in their units, their Commander-in-Chief should not order them to do it, because it won't be effective, carries disturbing tints of LeMay's rebellious antagonism toward President Kennedy. Not to mention earlier Generals' objections to President Truman's racial integration of the services back in the late 1940s. Granted, change is a slow process. But that's no reason to put off beginning the process. And last I checked, subordinates' distaste for an order is not considered a good reason for any military commander to refrain from issuing it -- or disciplining anyone who fails to enthusiastically carry it out. 

In 1993, I conducted extensive research at NASA and the FAA about the potential switch to GPS as a navigation and aircraft landing-aid technology. The senior managers I interviewed at the FAA, all of whom had come up through the ranks in a world dependent on ground-based navigation and landing systems, insisted -- almost to a person -- that GPS would never work. Disaster would follow any attempts to switch. Ground-based systems were the only safe way to go. All those managers had built their careers on that world and technology, of course. So in a way, their resistance made sense. It didn't fit the models they had for smooth, reliable, or safe operation of the activities for which they were responsible. But it left them out of step with the world as it was evolving; dinosaurs who were soon eclipsed by younger and more nimble managers who had the ability see a different, and equally effective, paradigm for the system.

I don't know exactly what lay behind General LeMay's attitudes toward women in the military, or what lies behind General McPeak's attitudes toward gays in the military. But it appears that both men suffered (and McPeak still suffers) from the same narrowing of vision and/or calcification of world views. 

Six years after LeMay retired, Jeanne Holm was promoted to the rank of General. She's credited with vastly expanding the roles and positions open to women in the Air Force, opening both ROTC programs and admission into the Air Force Academy to women, and helping then-ACLU attorney Ruth Bader-Ginsberg win a Supreme Court case mandating that the military had to provide equal family benefits to women service personnel with civilian spouses as were provided to men with civilian spouses. 

"She was the one person who was smart enough, shrewd enough and persuasive enough to handle that job," Bridadier General Jean E. Klick said of Holm in 1990. 

And here's the real irony. Holms' obituaries noted discreetly, in various word combinations, that she was, as one report put it, "survived by her companion, Lt. Col. Dr. Norma Loeser (USAF, ret.)." General McPeak focused only on the dollars and cents of training. But just imagine the talent and achievements that would have been lost if General Holm had not been allowed to serve out her career.
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Lane Wallace is a pilot and adventure writer. She is the author of Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero's Journey.

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