(photo credit: Gary Burke)
“Duty, Honor, Country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be,” General Douglas MacArthur said in August 1962.
I’ve often thought about these words and whom we owe for our nationhood. Do we owe those who put their lives on the line by signing the Declaration of Independence? The many who joined military service in the various wars America has engaged in or had to fight? Of course – but the picture is much bigger than veterans and founding fathers.
Regular Americans who vote, who pay taxes, who respect the rights of those who lose in contests, who pursue their passions without harming others, who support a system that constrains the power of the presidency, who contribute money to their local playhouse or little league, who get involved in their children’s education, who volunteer, or who just become part of the glue holding together a complex society are those who we owe thanks to for supporting the country. And going a bit further, we owe these folks whether they are straight, gay, or any other complexion. There’s a lot of diversity in our society — and the straight crowd never gets things done on their own, whether they are conscious of it or not.
Speaking of the military though — and the military in my view do deserve our respect, particularly enlisted men and women who don’t get the officer perks — the services are finally becoming an inclusive big tent operation.
This past year, President Obama started the process of dismantling Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – and thus is shrinking the gap between the norms of the military and the more tolerant and inclusive norms that are increasingly becoming the law of the land throughout the country. Gays and lesbians have always been in the military services, just hidden. I even had the privilege of getting to know Faubion Bowers, one of the gay but when serving closeted staff assistants in Japan to General Douglas MacArthur, some years ago.
But gay soldiers, gay janitors, gay think tank types, gay race car drivers and baseball players, gay writers and cops and firemen and architects, gay teachers, gay boy scouts, accountants, and gay chamber of commerce members all can feel the drama of “duty, honor, country” pulse through their hearts and minds as much as any other person – and America seems to be getting just to the edge of being able to respect this.
A year and a half ago when President Obama spoke at the annual Human Rights Campaign gala, the room was full of soldiers – some in uniform and some not. I advised a close friend who is a captain in the Air Force to think through the consequences of being outed if he wore his mess dress to that dinner. Wherever the President went, there was a ton of media – and that media is not required to respect the private rights of people at a public event. He ended up going in civvies – and leaving his uniform at home. We took pics of it hanging on my wall.
Because of the absurdity and immorality of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, my friend could not honorably and without threat to himself salute his Commander in Chief in uniform at a DC dinner.
This idiocy is soon coming to an end. Obama delivered – with enormous assistance from Defense Secretary Bob Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen, Senators Carl Levin and Joseph Lieberman, former House Member Patrick Murphy, among others.
President Obama should consider speaking at the Human Rights Campaign dinner in the spring of 2012 so that those soldiers who had to lurk in the audience as someone other than who they were can wear their uniforms and be proud of serving the nation and showing that straight or gay, they are as committed to duty, honor and country as any other soldier – or any other member of society.
It used to be in vogue to study and chat about “the civil-military gap” in DC think tanks. I remember senior fellow John Hillen, then of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, arguing about thirteen years ago that the esprit de corps of the US military would be seriously wounded if gays in service were allowed to reveal themselves. This scholar strongly defended the widening gap between military norms and those norms of tolerance and inclusion that were spreading in American society.
Fortunately, that kind of thinking seems to have been pushed to the periphery – and humor about these tectonic civil rights shifts are helping to make sure that duty, honor and country can be embraced openly by all in military service.
As a small example, at this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner, I ran into a General I greatly respect, General John Allen – who is succeeding General David Petraeus as Commander of the ISAF forces in Afghanistan. General Allen was in full, fancy, mess dress – lots of colorful medals and ribbons; quite dashing. I saw him, and somewhat loudly yelled, “John!” And he yelled just as loudly “Steve!” One of us gave the other a manly bear hug — can’t remember which.
And standing next to us was AP’s Anne Gearan as well as Admiral and Mrs. Mike Mullen. Mullen chuckled and said “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”
Great moment – but the point is that the gap between “us” and the military is disappearing, and this is good for American society.
Duty. Honor. Country. I’m a patriot. My gay Air Force friend is a patriot. My non-gay General friend about to take the reigns in Afghanistan is a patriot. Seth Myers, who performed that night at the Correspondents Dinner and took some whacks at President Obama, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, and particularly Donald Trump is a patriot.
Has to be said again. Duty, honor, country — Seth Myers was just brilliant. He did his part for the country that night.
Happy July 4th – and a salute to everyone – everyone in the big tent – who has helped move this country forward.
We have so much further to go. America is stuck in some ruts and has had some serious dips and shown some key economic, military and moral limits that have punctured its mystique. But I feel that America has a creative edginess that may help to undermine cynicism and get the country on a healthy, productive course that everyone has a hand in.
As controversial a man Douglas MacArthur was, he had a way with words – and these particular words of duty, honor, and country — I feel — apply to all of us.
— Steve Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons. Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic and is Founder and Senior Fellow of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation