Civilian control keeps America’s military ahead societal norms
With the repeal of the Trump administration’s ban on open service by transgender members of the military, the Biden administration demonstrates civilian control of the military in the truest sense of the concept.
Civilian control of the military — where our nation’s military is controlled by political civilian leaders instead of military generals — is a doctrine central to the founding of our nation. And while America’s military is often thought to be an institution resistant to change, the United States has a long history of the military implementing its civilian leaders’ orders that are ahead of societal norms.
President Harry S. Truman’s 1948 executive order to integrate the military is the clearest example of changes to America’s military force even before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. More recent policy changes include President Obama’s repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2010 — well before the 2015 Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage — and the opening of all combat roles to women in 2013.
The repeal of the ban on openly transgender service members is the metaphorical equivalent of pushing on an open door. Last year, a Department of Defense (DOD)-funded study found that approximately two-thirds of active duty service members polled supported serving alongside their transgender siblings in arms. Prior changes in personnel policy were often over the objections of service leaders and against widely-held attitudes in the ranks, while today’s repeal is one with which the services had long come to terms in 2016 before being rolled back under the Trump administration.
We need a military that reflects the realities of an increasingly diverse country and that supports public servants in living their authentic truths. Most anyone in uniform knows, has served with, worked for or led members of LGBTQ community in the armed services long before rescinding of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010. Last week’s efforts further support the very values that undergird honorable service to our nation.
An underlying reason for the military’s greater openness to personnel changes of this sort stems from its shift from an identity-focused sense of unit cohesion to one that is performance-focused. Baseless counter arguments before Truman’s executive order were that, for instance, Black soldiers in integrated units would undermine their combat effectiveness because of the difference in identity between Black and white service members. When integrated units went on to fight effectively, the logic of segregation crumbled.
While certainly any officer worth one’s salt gets to know the members of their unit, in today’s military, effective leaders prioritize the performance of a task at hand — not the identity of those performing it. This is partly attributable to greater social inclusion in society broadly, but also driven by military necessity. Fewer Americans are eligible to serve, whether because of preexisting medical conditions, such as obesity, or failure to meet other recruitment standards, so arbitrarily excluding categories of civilians reduces the pool from which to recruit.
If you happen to have been born into a female body before transitioning into being a man, for instance, there is no rational reason to exclude you from service, so long as you meet the performance standards required. In the ranks, the argument that one’s transgender identity undermines unit cohesion is no longer accepted as a credible rationale for exclusion from service and anyone who would discriminate does not deserve the honor of wearing the uniform.
President Biden’s executive order repealing the ban is both within his prerogative as commander in chief and sound policy. While there are still issues in which one’s identity as transgender is invoked as challenging norms, such as the debates over bathrooms, it is likely that the military will again be at the forefront of demonstrating the spuriousness of such arguments, just as was the case with segregation. When the military is able to show that even in the close quarters of military service — whether in barracks, ships or in deployed environments — there is no breakdown in good order and discipline, so too will our country come to discover that society does not collapse when a person uses the bathroom that corresponds to the gender to which they identify.
Dr. Brian Babcock-Lumish is a retired U.S. Army officer and security fellow of the Truman National Security Project, who researches civil-military relations and foreign policy.