At West Point


A week ago last Saturday, I was invited to West Point by a group called “Knights Out”. That’s the name for the gay-straight alliance among cadets at the oldest continuous military installation in America. This was their second annual dinner – which, like all things done twice at West Point, is now therefore a tradition. (Yes, that’s TV foodie, Ted Allen, on the far left. He was also a guest.) I thought I was just attending a dinner and making a few remarks, but they insisted on giving me an award for my work on ending the military ban on openly gay service-members. This happened the week before those critical court cases on marriage equality.

It’s taken me this long to write up the event because my bewilderment has been so disorienting – and because it was difficult to absorb the power of this moment while putting on my analyst’s hat for the court cases. But here’s part of what I managed in my paywalled Sunday column in the Times of London:

There were around 30 gay cadets present, and then plenty of old boys (and girls), and military faculty. An older general was there – with his husband. It was a formal event held in a central building. And as I tried cadetprayerto absorb the moment, it occurred to me that a little over two years ago, all of those cadets would have been expelled for merely being there. Since the beginning of the institution, gay cadets were either subject to immediate discharge or, after 1993, under the policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, ordered to keep their sexual orientation secret or face dismissal. They were, in other words, forced to break the core ethic of the place – “a cadet will not lie …” – in order to remain in good standing with it. And it was that ancient alleged contradiction – between military honor and homosexuality – that was being dissolved that night.

A tough Brigadier General, Tammy Smith, gave an address: “You’re military first, gay second,” she insisted, her wife sitting nearby. And these young gay men and lesbians gave her a standing ovation. They were in the military not because they were gay, but because they wanted to serve their country. One young cadet I met was following family tradition that had sent the next generation to West Point and the Army for decades. The only difference this time is that she was a woman and a lesbian. Another young cadet from the South argued with me at dinner, protesting Obamacare. He was a Republican and gay and in uniform – and saw nothing contradictory or odd about any of it.

The organization as a whole has taken as its own motto a section of the Academy’s prayer: “Never to be content with the half-truth when the whole can be won.” They did not want to rebel against this institution, or to occupy some special niche. They merely wanted to be wholly, honorably part of it. And finally, they were.

In a column today, Ross Douthat urges those who have championed and almost won the argument for homosexual civil equality to adopt Churchill’s advice: “In Victory: Magnanimity,” while he opts for Churchill’s other dictum, “In Defeat: Defiance.” There was certainly no hubris or triumphalism at West Point. There was merely relief – relief that forcing gay cadets to break West Point’s honor code against lying is now mercifully left in the trashcan of history.

From the next generation, I heard nothing but the desire to serve their country without lying. This was not about the relevance of their sexual orientation but rather its irrelevance compared with this honorable vocation. There was a time when conservatives rejoiced when a balkanized minority wanted to integrate itself into the whole of society by affirming traditional goals, like serving one’s country in uniform or marrying the one you love. There was a time when identity politics was the foe of conservatism. Now, the integrators and opponents of identity politics are suddenly those at fault. And the right has resorted to the identity politics of victimology to describe its current predicament.

And what struck me about these gay soldiers – as with the many gay service-members I have been proud to know and meet in my life – was their commitment to honor. They truly found the lies they were commanded to tell about their lives to be dishonorable. And what struck me about West Point was its constant, persistent American military insistence on choosing the “harder right instead of the easier wrong.” Honor is everything there. It is a standing rebuke to the following sentence:

“You don’t want your honor to be questioned? Why would those things matter when compared to protecting America?”

Yes, the antidote to Cheney is West Point. And the cadets who found the courage to put honor first. And changed the world because of it.