A retired general who supports “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” raised eyebrows last week when he said open service in a foreign military led to a horrific massacre and suggested lifting the U.S. ban would lead to sexual assault.
During a hearing March 18 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. John Sheehan, a former commander for U.S. Atlantic Command, said lifting the ban on open service in the Netherlands contributed to the country’s inability to prevent the Srebrenica massacre in 1995.
The event, in which the Serbian military executed more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys, occurred after a United Nations protection force of around 400 Dutch peacekeepers failed to stop the massacre.
Sheehan, who retired from the U.S. military 13 years ago, identified this event as a product of the how the Dutch — as well as other militaries throughout Europe — dropped their bans to include “open homosexuality” as part of the liberalization of these armed forces following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“They declared a peace dividend and made a conscious effort to socialize their military,” he said. “They did not believe the Germans were going to attack again or the Soviets were coming back. That led to force that was ill-equipped to go to war.”
Sheehan said he heard from a former Dutch military leader that the Srebrenica killings were the result of the liberalization of the armed forces, which he called an effect of “social engineering.”
But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) rebuked the notion that the massacre was the result of allowing gays to serve openly in the Dutch military.
“Any effort to connect that failure on the part of the Dutch to the fact that they have homosexuals or did allow homosexuals, I think, is totally off target,” he said. “I’ve seen no suggestion of that.”
Levin said the failures of Srebrenica were the result of Dutch troops being trained as peacekeepers and not what was required to conduct the mission.
In a statement provided by Levin, Dutch Ambassador to the United States Renée Jones-Bos said he “couldn’t disagree more” with Sheehan’s comments and that he takes pride in how lesbians and gays are allowed to serve openly in the Dutch military.
“The military mission of Dutch U.N. soldiers at Srebrenica has been exhaustively studied and evaluated, nationally and internationally,” he said. “There is nothing in these reports that suggests any relationship between gays serving in the military and the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims.”
Sheehan also expressed concern that open service would lead to sexual assault in the military, as well as other problems should gay service members engage in inappropriate contact with other troops.
Recalling his days in the Vietnam War, Sheehan said there was incident in which a young Marine was being molested by his sergeant in a foxhole. Sheehan noted that the two fought, and a machine gun section near the foxhole opened up and almost killed a combat patrol.
When the young Marine reported this incident, Sheehan said there was a disruption in unit cohesion because the sergeant denied molesting the young Marine and many didn’t believe the allegations.
“For about three days, that unit divided down the middle,” Sheehan said. “Those that supported the popular squad leader, [and] those that kind of thought the new kid might be believable.”
An end to divisiveness came, Sheehan said, when the sergeant committed the same offense three days later.
“But the real tragedy of this story is the young [private] continually insisted for a long period of time that nobody in his organization believed that it happened,” he said. “He lost faith in his chain of command.”
To further his case about concerns on sexual assault, Sheehan also cited a report from the Defense Department last year noting a net increase of 3,200 sexual assaults in the military. He said 7 percent of these incidents — or about 226 — were male-on-male assaults.
“I would stipulate that from my days in Vietnam in the early 60s, when I had this sergeant that almost got a combat patrol killed, to the 226 male soldiers and Marines who were molested, that there’s something wrong with our sexual behavior policy,” he said.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the sponsor of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal legislation in the Senate, said he didn’t share the view that open service would lead to sexual assaults in the military.
“The episode you gave of the sexual assault, Gen. Sheehan, with one man assaulting another man, could, of course, easily and unfortunately does happen more with a man assaulting a women in uniform,” he said.
Lieberman noted statistics Sheehan gave of 7 percent of assaults being male-on-male means 93 percent are heterosexual assault.
“I know there may be fears that if we repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ there’ll be behavior inconsistent with good order and discipline, including sexual assault,” Lieberman said. “But if that happens, they’ll be held to the same account and discipline.”
Two witnesses who testified in favor of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were Michael Almy, a gay former Air Force communications officer, and Jenny Kopfstein, a lesbian former Navy surface warfare officer. Almy was discharged from service under the ban in 2006 and Kopfstein was discharged in 2002.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) asked both Almy and Kopfstein whether they favored a “thorough, complete” review of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” as is currently underway in the Pentagon.
Kopfstein said she didn’t have a problem with the review, but that it’s clear the law should be changed.
Almy, however, said he doesn’t favor the study because other changes have taken place in the military without such work.
“We have not done this on any other issues with regard to change to the military — as far as, most recently, putting women in submarines, women in the service academies,” he said. “We did not survey the forces then on those issues. The military is not a democracy. I don’t see this issue as any different, senator.”
McCain said he was “confused about” the opposition to conducting the Pentagon study as means to find out whether “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” should be repealed.
“I will continue to argue and fight for whatever I can to make sure that we have a thorough, objective review of the impact on the military of the change of this law,” McCain said. “I think the men and women who serving in the military deserve no less.”
A number of committee members during the hearing expressed their personal viewpoints on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who’s seen as a swing vote on repeal this year, emphasized the importance of waiting for the completion of the Pentagon review before taking action.
“I don’t want to predict at all where this is going to go,” he said. “I just think that it is vital that we can say to the people in the military and the American people that we’ve been responsible in terms of how a decision has been made.”
But Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) said that in response to the stories of people who are being expelled under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a moratorium should be placed on the law’s enforcement to prevent further discharges.
“I think that we need to put a moratorium on this situation right now — don’t let anyone be discharged from the military because of their sexual orientation until we can change this law,” he said.
Following the hearing, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis said the hearing showed “a stark, realistic division” between young service members and retired members of the military from Sheehan’s generation.
“By and large, today’s warriors are fine with gays and lesbian serving openly,” he said. “Obviously, Gen. Sheehan, like some of the joint chiefs, are expressing resistance, dragging their feet.”
But Sarvis said the process that’s underway is examining how to bring about open service in the military “in a smooth, orderly way.”
“That’s what this debate should be about — it should be how,” he said. “It’s not if, it’s not whether, it’s about how we bring about this change.”
Last week’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing occurred alongside other events that brought attention to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” including Servicemembers Legal Defense Network’s lobby day on Capitol Hill; the Human Rights Campaign’s rally on Freedom Plaza; and an act of civil disobedience by gay U.S. Army Lt. Dan Choi, who handcuffed himself to the White House gates in protest of the law.