McChrystal's Social Liberalism and the Integration of Gays in the Military

The fact, revealed in Rolling Stone, that Gen. Stanley McChrystal voted for President Obama may well have been a planted nugget designed to show how receptive McChrystal was to Obama's worldview. But several people who worked for, and continue to work for, Gen. McChrystal say that it's true. McChrystal told his subordinates about his ballot choice in November of 2008. More surprisingly, this choice did not surprise them. McChrystal was a hard core operator, aggressive as hell, a JSOC ninja -- but he was also a social liberal who tolerated, nay, welcomed gay people into his inner circle, who disdained Fox News, and who grew increasingly frustrated with his reputation as Dick Cheney's hired assassin. 

Maybe McChrystal is unique in the special forces (SOF) community, but I tend to think not. In fact, having spent quite a bit of time recently with current and former special forces soldiers, I find that McChrystal's views on gays seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Given the traditional outline of the gays-in-the-military debate, one might think that the special forces soldiers, guys from traditional military families who spend unusual amounts of time in close quarters, would be the most opposed to having gays serve openly. My admittedly limited experience suggests that this is not the case. As one former member of a special missions unit put it to me recently, "It's really about competence. If you're competent, it doesn't matter who you are."  And then, switching instantly from an analytical posture to a machismo mode, he said, "If a guy saves my ass, he sure as hell can look at it."

This brings me to a conversation I overheard between two elite soldiers recently.

One soldier -- call him Ben -- checks his e-mail. "Fuck," he says. He opens his cell phone and makes a call. ... A beat. ... "Heeeey cock breath, how are you?"  ... "Yeah, that sucks." "Yeah, why is he doing this to us again?" "No, he told me his partner was in town for the weekend and he really needed to see him." ... "Dude, why can't he break way for one weekend!"   

The conversation continues.

"Yeah, well, you know I'm just going to come over and [perform an obscene act involving testicles -- this IS The Atlantic, after all, and I already typed 'cock breath']."

He hangs up.

What was that about, I asked?

"Oh, this guy we haven't seen for a while is in town, a really good buddy, but his partner is also in town and he wants to see him. So we were just complaining that he wanted to see his partner rather than hang with us."

So here's my take on the conversation:

You had two straight soldiers, bantering as they would in the barracks, the homo-social-machismo overtone, the negging involving gay sex acts ... in a conversation that validated the gay partnership of their friend. They wanted to see their friend. 

A lot of the outside discussion of Don't Ask, Don't Tell assumes that the integration of gays in the military will require the imposition of a new code of political correctness, one that dissolves the rough, often profane, often exaggeratedly anti-gay banter that serves as a gateway into conversation between buddies. 

But the two cultures can co-exist. It seems as if they already do, informally. People who are gay, and who are competent, and who have been tabbed, are accepted. And no one is toning down their language; discipline and morale aren't suffering. It's the lesson from South Park: there's "gay," and then there's gay. Outside of the military, we are more careful with such language, and that's probably a good thing -- it certainly is for younger kids. 

No doubt there will be genuine anxiety among many soldiers about the prospect of serving with gays. No doubt that gays will be genuinely anxious about the prospect of facing real bigotry. But in the special forces community, a model of acceptance seems to already exist. 

If you think about it, the special forces is the quintessence of democratic (and maybe Democratic) ideals -- rank and position based on merit, guaranteed health care, labor protection for civilians. And acceptance of gays. 

McChrystal is not the only general in the Pentagon who is not a rock-ribbed Republican. At the risk of outing these generals as non-arch-conservatives, there are four star generals Carter Ham and Pete Chiarelli, General Ray Odierno, Lt. Gen. Ken Hunzeker, and many more who may not be registered with either party but are known to be welcoming and accepting of gay people and generally supportive of the concept of political liberalism in its undistilled form. 

There is absolutely resistance to the concept of gays in the military from senior officers as well, and it is not trivial. Figuring out how equal protection of gay spouses and partners will work is going to be hard. One cannot dismiss as irrelevant the social fears and biases of people who respond to gay people with a gut-level repulsion. Hard work lies ahead for those who are integrating gays into the military.

But it most certainly can be done. If the special forces community can do it informally, then the rest of the military sure as hell can do it officially. 
Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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