All successful militaries seek to balance adaptation with continuity. Consider the modern American military’s practice of conducting an “After Action Review.” The AAR is a form of unit self-evaluation that seeks to evaluate what practices should and should not be continued. Put simply, a fighting unit wants to keep doing things that work and stop doing things that undermine mission success. The AAR is an incredibly useful tool to keep a unit focused on pragmatic improvement because of its simplicity. Didn’t create a casualty collection point fast enough? Train to improve. Unit marksmanship was off? Schedule more range time. Everyone communicated well? Keep doing that.
While this might make sense at a granular, tactical level, the clarity of its pragmatism becomes muddied by abstraction when the principle is applied to an entire nation’s military and political aims. This is especially true when the larger goals the military is working to achieve are up for debate. On this level of discourse, change can look less like steady movement toward a single final end and more like a series of changing trends.
Defense thinker and journalist Loren B. Thompson likens these shifts to “Fall fashion season,” writing that “Although we tend to associate fashion with the frivolous, in fact styles come and go in every field, including the defense business.” And although the shift from, say, the large, drafted, citizen-soldier military of the mid-twentieth century to the smaller, all-volunteer force of today was made possible in large part by technological progress, also embedded in the shift is a more fundamental animating logic regarding how our military is structured.
The profound demographic changes that have occurred in the American military over the past decade—particularly the presence of openly transgender soldiers—do not necessarily reveal individual coordinates along history’s bending arc of justice. Instead, they provide a clue to the military’s current animating ideology and how the institution relates to and is influenced by the American public.
Start your day with Public DiscourseSign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.
Race and the American Military
A useful point of historical comparison is the mid-century desegregation of the United States military. Racial segregation officially ended in the armed forces with President Truman’s Executive Order 9981. The document itself is relatively short, consisting of a few bullet points that outline the creation of the president’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Forces and the ways in which the committee would oversee the racial desegregation of the armed forces. But the most relevant section of the executive order is the preamble, which gives voice to the ideology underpinning the project of racial desegregation itself: “Whereas it is essential that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country’s defense.”
Although this is a seemingly simple and straightforward preamble, it is built on several key assumptions. Most importantly, the decision is framed as a moral one: desegregation is presented as a necessary step for maintaining “the highest standards of democracy” in the military. African Americans were already serving in the military and had been for quite some time. The issue was one of fairness: it was time to ensure equal treatment and opportunity for all American citizens in uniform. What the order does not suggest is that desegregation would somehow benefit the military strategically or tactically. The order is not a tepid declaration of instrumental logic but a bold statement of values.
Of course, there were also strategic, tactical, and operational benefits to the military in desegregating the force. Retention, for example, always improves with fairer treatment. African American service members were more likely to reenlist if they had the same opportunities as their white counterparts, and African American officers were finally able to rise to levels of command commensurate with their abilities. General Colin Powell’s career is an illustration of Truman’s executive order in action. But the rhetorical case for integration did not focus on these benefits. Instead, it rested on an assertion that integration was in and of itself the right thing to do.
Truman’s argument was based on the assumption that the military is a public institution, a burden shared equally among citizens. The wording of his executive order expressed the tight bond between the military and the country itself. So while many at the time might have felt that the military shouldn’t be racially integrated, their arguments would either have to concede the moral ground to Truman’s democratizing impulse and make their case in purely utilitarian terms, or agree with Truman’s basic assumptions about the good of democratizing the service and couch their objections within those cultural limits.
The Evolution of the American Military
We have a very different military now. The most dramatic change came in 1975 when our drafted military of citizen soldiers became an all-volunteer force. Morris Janowitz predicted that transitioning away from military service as an obligation during time of war would cleave the civilian and military worlds, creating two parallel societies. That’s pretty much what has happened. In the 1990s, Defense Secretary William Cohen saw these predictions coming to fruition, claiming that he perceived a “chasm . . . developing between the military and civilian worlds.” In real terms, fewer Americans are serving in the military proportionally, and fewer political leaders are veterans. Simply put, the military is no longer an organ of American democracy, no longer enmeshed with larger American culture, and so no longer expressive of widely held values. The military has instead become a handmaiden of “elite” culture and interests, divorced from the larger citizenry it is supposed to serve. So when we think of the huge demographic shifts that have recently taken place in the military, we should realize that this isn’t some expansive and democratic opening of a public institution. It is an expression of the much narrower considerations of a small coterie of political and cultural elites.
The rhetoric used to justify the recent changes evinces this institutional separation of the military from the larger public. It is noticeably different from the language that Truman used in his executive order. As Defense Secretary Ashton Carter explained:
The Defense Department and the military need to avail ourselves of all talent possible in order to remain what we are now — the finest fighting force the world has ever known . . . We don’t want barriers unrelated to a person’s qualification to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman or marine who can best accomplish the mission. We have to have access to 100% of America’s population. Although relatively few in number, we’re talking about talented and trained Americans who are serving their country with honor and distinction. We want to take the opportunity to retain people whose talent we’ve invested in and who’ve proven themselves.
In other words, not every person has a right to serve our country in the military, but our country has a right to the most combat-effective applicants. Truman spoke of “equality of treatment and opportunity,” while Secretary Carter talks about the Department of Defense availing itself of “all talent possible.” The argument has shifted from the military as a public institution attempting to embody the values of the nation to the Pentagon as a sort of elite recruiting agency asserting the right to hire anyone it wants to.
It’s telling that the argument has shifted from the rights of citizens to the rights of the Pentagon as an institution. This illustrates the untethering of the American military from the public. The military is no longer a populist artifact but a plaything of political elites, and deep fissures have formed between it and the citizens that it used to represent. This division has many consequences. One is that the larger public, without any personal experience of the military, carries around misconceptions of what service members are like. Surveys have shown, for instance, that civilians think veterans are uniformly more likely to be homeless and unemployed than they actually are. The divide also accounts for such startling disconnects as half of all millennials wanting ground troops to fight the Islamic State, but over 80 percent refusing to serve themselves. This is the first generation to be engaged in endless war with other people fighting on their behalf. It is a matter of course for them.
Back in 1795, Immanuel Kant foresaw our contemporary dilemma. He articulated the most distressing aspect of this divide in his pamphlet Toward Perpetual Peace, in which he argued that democratic control of a military is predicated on the service of its citizens. This reciprocal relationship is currently baffled by a combination of a volunteer-only force, an Authorization for the Use of Military Force that bypasses meaningful checks on executive overreach, and the implementation of an offset strategy that seeks to mitigate the need for large numbers of citizen soldiers. According to Kant, if a nation’s military is not an organic democratic institution, our elites’ hawkish inclinations are nothing more than a hunting party—exploits they pursue on a whim and according to the vagaries of their impulse. As we see in Secretary Carter’s language, these whims are defended not with the moral arguments concerning the proper role of the citizen-soldier in a democracy, but with the smugness of a corporate head hunter.
Is Trans the New Black?
Reverse-engineering the structural reasons for trans-inclusion in the military give us context, but some practical points of comparison for how the trans issue differs from race are in order. Avoiding the complex and fraught argument over the normativity of transsexuality, the numbers alone present a quantitative issue. Roughly 0.3 percent of the population identifies as trans. Roughly 13 percent of the population is African American. Race is a broader category, but individually stable from birth. Biological sex (putting aside the anomalies too rare to build bureaucratic policy on) exists along a binary but its external manifestations can, with hormones and surgery, be altered. Taking the time and effort to tailor rules to a minuscule population whose gender identity is, theoretically, constantly in flux isn’t necessarily a wise use of resources. In that regard, I suppose, using taxpayer money to finance the transitional surgeries of trans soldiers fits with the recent tradition of profligate Pentagon spending. But that doesn’t make it wise.
Leading up to the racial desegregation of the military, it was a sad fact that equally qualified people were working according to different sets of rules. There was one set of professional criteria for black soldiers, and one for white. As an organization, the military had to go out of its way to enforce this bifurcation. The morality in Truman’s executive order leveled the field and normalized equality. The way that trans soldiers are being integrated works in the opposite way—creating a special set of rules and circumstances for a minuscule minority of troops. This is especially apparent when subsidized surgeries are taken into account.
Racial and trans integration were also implemented in different ways. There were studies and surveys undertaken before racial integration to ensure that morale wouldn’t be affected. One in particular found that 77 percent of respondents had a more positive attitude of African American soldiers after serving with them, and over 80 percent believed that African American soldiers had performed well in combat. No similar surveys were taken before integrating trans soldiers. Furthermore, despite the finality in tone of Truman’s executive order, it took decades to fully implement. Some would argue that it didn’t come into full effect until Defense Secretary Robert McNamara issued Directive 5120.36, which ordered each commander to “oppose discriminatory practices affecting his men and their dependents and to foster equal opportunity for them, not only in areas under his immediate control, but also in nearby communities where they may live or gather in off-duty hours.” Again, the emphasis here is on equality of opportunity developed over time, not on sustaining a parallel set of rules and regulations by fiat.
That said, as an infantry veteran myself, I would have had no problem serving next to anyone brave and selfless enough to fight beside me. Bravery and courage aren’t the issue here. Transgender soldiers are twice as likely to enlist as the general population and it would be a waste of resources to root them out. Furthermore, other countries, most notably the Israeli Defense Forces, conscript trans soldiers without its being a detriment to their operational efficiency. There’s no doubt that trans people can fight. But that was never the issue.
The way trans soldiers have been integrated into the military is a troubling symptom of a deep rift between the military and the country it defends. It would be wrong to interpret the inclusion of transgender soldiers in the military as some open-armed embrace of the average citizen by a populist organization. It’s actually indicative of the opposite trend: a coterie of political elites, having partitioned the military from the citizenry, have turned the military into their own private dollhouse. Whether or not their intentions are well-meaning is beside the point. If the military were fully integrated into the body of mainstream American culture, then the institution could truly embody the values and strengths of our society—not the foibles of Kant’s out-of-touch, upper-class hunting party.