President Clinton, at his first press conference, fielded 30 typical questions on his policies--and one unprecedented question on the extent of his power. Citing evidence of a growing rift between the Pentagon and the President, a reporter asked, "Do you have a problem, perhaps because of your lack of military experience or perhaps because of issues such as gays in the military, in being effective in your role as commander in chief?"
The President's answer was "no"--for the sake of the republic, the only possible response. Civilian rule means that soldiers must follow their civilian leader in spite of their deepest disagreements.
There are no acceptable conditions on military obedience. There are, however, unavoidable conditions on military morale. One of the most important is the conviction of soldiers that their commander in chief understands their life and respects their needs. Armed with that confidence, American soldiers perform prodigies of endurance and skill. Without that belief, effectiveness is slowly dissolved in resentment.
Gaining the trust of his military is bound to be a rocky courtship for the President, made difficult by his own background and new spending priorities. Many in the military feel caught in a powerful undertow of change. A pay freeze. Base closings. Drastic cuts in personnel. Yet at the end of each of these policy debates, no matter the outcome, members of the armed forces will salute and obey.
But on one issue, the dynamic is different: open homosexuality in the military. With an executive order, the President could leave scars that never properly heal.
Why this exception? I went to the Norfolk Naval Base to ask and listen.
"One of the biggest factors is cohesiveness," said one petty officer. "It would splinter the crew."
"Homosexual advocates call these 'bathroom issues,' " another observed, "It is more than that. It is the uniqueness of deployment not experienced by civilians. This is not a regular life."
One ship captain said, "I spend a significant portion of my time enforcing personnel policy. . . .If you add homosexuality, my day will be filled with fraternization and civil-rights issues. This is on top of shrinking opportunity, shrinking budgets, longer hours. . . .If I give this attention, readiness will be significantly affected."
The firsthand images of military life speak more powerfully than position papers. Eight decks below the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, 12 bunks squeeze in a space the size of a walk-in closet. Submarines designed for 110 personnel carry 150. Crew members sleep in empty storage racks for torpedoes and missiles. Lavatory doors in a sub are wired open to keep them from making noise by slamming shut.
Those who live with little privacy defend it tenaciously. From admirals to junior enlisted, there is a common conviction: Sexual tension in tight quarters would destroy their unity, compromise their effectiveness and disrupt their lives.
The sailors I spoke with are prepared to risk death whenever the President orders. There is no hint of mutiny. But when I asked how many would seriously consider resigning or not re-enlisting if the President changes military policy on homosexuality, about 75% raised their hands.
Clinton has demonstrated a strength in his ability to empathize with people whose experience is different from his own. He has talked with the homeless, with construction workers, with frightened mothers in urban combat zones. He has tried to understand people where they live.
When the President visited the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, I assume he also ventured eight decks down. I assume he sat on the bunks and talked with the sailors. It should give him pause. It was a glimpse into a world he has never shared, but now has a responsibility to understand.
Perhaps the President's experience on the Roosevelt explains his apparent search for compromise. At his press conference, he floated the possibility of segregating the troops according to sexual preference. It was a new recognition of the complexity of this issue. It would also end up offending everyone. Homosexuals would resent their exclusion from deployment. Heterosexuals would resent that a declaration of homosexuality would lead to easy shore duty instead of six months at sea.
The Senate Armed Services Committee hearings that begin Monday are an opportunity for the President to draw on the testimony of witnesses whose experience is different and wider than his own. Flexibility would not be an admission of weakness. It would be a sign of understanding and respect for men and women pledged to fight and die at his command.