Homophobia Preserves Mascularity-power?
Way back in his 1996 Homos, Leo Bersani suggested that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was fundamentally about theatricality:
…perhaps the most serious danger in gay Marines being open about their gayness is that they might begin, like some of their gay civilian brothers, to play at being Marines. Not that they would make fun of the Marines. On the contrary: they may find ways of being so Marine-like that they will no longer be “real” Marines. D.A. Miller has a marvelous passage in Bringing Out Roland Barthes on “the different priorities of the macho straight male body and the so-called gym body of the gay male culture”: “Even the most macho gay image tends to modify cultural fantasy about the male body if only by suspending the main response that the armored (macho straight male) body seems developed to induce: if this is still the body that can fuck you, etc., it is no longer – quite the contrary – the body you don’t fuck with.”…What passes for the real thing self destructs from within its theatricalized replication. The imaginary negates the real to which it purportedly adheres. In imagining what he presumably already is (both gay and a Marine), the gay Marine may learn the invaluable lesson that identity is not serious (as if what he is imitating never existed before it was imitated). Nothing is more inimical to military life than that lesson.”
He’s suggesting that what’s at stake in DADT is the military’s ability to believe in the non-theatricality of its own theatrics, to imagine that the performance of military masculinity which it seeks to instill in the ranks is real. In other words, since Bersani is emphasizing gay identity as an understanding of identity as ambiguous, flexible, performed, and fluid, it would corrode the military’s ability to take itself seriously.
I’m not certain he’s right, but I’m interested in this argument for two reasons. One, it allows us to regard DADT as an effort to conserve manpower, rather than a senseless waste of the soldiers who might otherwise serve. I came across this little nugget of discourse in someone’s tweets (who are you tweeter? I’ve forgotten), and I find the language used by the navy in 1945 to describe the incorporation of black soldiers a fascinating lens through which to view present debates over DADT:
Racial Theories Waste Manpower
In modern total warfare any avoidable waste of manpower can only be viewed as material aid to the enemy. Restriction, because of racial theories, of the contribution of any individual to the war effort is a serious waste of human resources. The Navy accepts no theories of racial differences in inborn ability, but expects that every man wearing its uniform be trained and used in accordance with his maximum individual capacity determined on the basis of individual performance. It is recognized, of course, that Negro performance in Naval training and tasks on the average has not been equal to the average performance of white personnel. Explanation of this difference by resort to some theory of differences in natural endowment, however, leads only to confusion in which the potentialities of individuals become obscured. It has been established by experience that individual Negroes vary as widely in native ability as do members of any other race. It is the Navy’s responsibility to develop the potentialities of individuals to the extent that the exigencies of war require and permit.
After all, we shouldn’t forget that the military was much quicker to de-segregate than the rest of American society. And some of the reasons for that are obvious: more black cannon fodder did not trouble the underlying structure of the military, and could contribute materially to its success. Black officers were another matter, but we find the same alacrity to let non-whites die alongside whites in the British and French empires of WWII (and probably others too, I ‘d imagine).
The point is, then, that if we think of DADT as motivated by simple bigotry — itself a fallacy, because no bigotry is ever simple — we have to account for why this bigotry is different than that one. Bersani’s suggestion accomplishes that by re-framing the problem as a fear that gay soldiers — of which there are so very many — will be unable to function if they are allowed to perform gayness publicly, and DADT as an effort to retain them. After all, as British naval history is there to remind us, being actively gay in private doesn’t impede the performance of military duties.
More than that, though, I’m interested by the suggestion that the modern military is driven by a slightly different logic than it once was. The 1945 “Guide To Command of Negro Naval Personnel” begins by emphasizing the waste of manpower which “modern total warfare” cannot afford. But is today’s warfare so jealous of its human resources? In the last sixty-five years, technology has changed the political economy of the military in some of the same ways it has transformed the rest of industrial society. I don’t mean to say that “human resources” are completely without value — in the way that our modern technocratic “post-industrial” society hates nothing so much as a worker with a pension — but I wonder whether a “shock and awe” military has such an investment in the theatrics of military potency that its dependence on actual military manpower is comparatively less important. It can afford to lose a substantial minority of its gay personnel, in other words, because its theatrics are more important than its actual functioning.
After all, it’s not like we’re fighting a real enemy out there; in 1945, Germany and Japan were actual industrial powers, and the Allies won because they could draw on a deeper and wider industrial foundation. The Global War on Terror is not that kind of war. Al Qaeda doesn’t have strategic targets to bomb, nor are American military losses significant except insofar as they impact public opinion. In other words, this “War” is not being won or lost by the industrial calculus of resources and attrition, but on the battlefield of the spectacle. Will they be “shocked and awed“? Or will we “lose heart and cut and run”? If that’s the question you‘re trying to plan your way through, maybe you’d look at the question of gays in the military from a different perspective.