Saturday, March 6, 2010

Unit Cohesion: What's Love Got To Do With It?

Homosexuality bad. Machismo good. At least that's what the former Air Force chief of staff says.

Merrill A. "Tony" McPeak, who represented the Air Force on the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1990 to 1994, was sounding off in The New York Times yesterday, letting us civilians know what it takes for members of the military to have courage under fire.

Gen. McPeak says "don't ask, don't tell" and the question of whether sexual orientation is relevant to military service should be subject to a simple test: does it impact unit cohesion?

I think that's a great idea.

Of course, that will require a way to measure unit cohesion and the factors that affect it. But anything important is important enough to measure.

By the way, according to Gen. McPeak, "We know, or ought to, that warriors are inspired by male bonding, by comradeship, by the knowledge that they survive only through relying on each other. To undermine cohesion is to endanger everyone."

Gen. McPeak continues:

"I know some will see these ingredients of the military lifestyle as a sort of absurd, tough-guy game played by overgrown boys. But to prepare warriors for a life of hardship, the military must remain a kind of adventure, apart from the civilian world and full of strange customs. To be a fighter pilot or a paratrooper or a submariner is to join a self-contained, resolutely idealistic society, largely unnoticed and surprisingly uncorrupted by the world at large."

That's a very nice opinion. However, I also have an opinion on this: unit cohesion has nothing to do with sexual orientation -- or gender -- or, for that matter, color or height or hometown or favorite rock group. It has to do with whether members of the unit have discovered reason to believe that their comrades can be counted on to do what they say they will do, and to dig deep to give their all in the service of shared beliefs.

Perhaps Gen. McPeak and I differ about what kind of "shared beliefs" rise to the level of being combat-worthy. (McPeak: Allman Brothers vs. Dire Straits? Rough sex vs. cuddling? Scarry: Fairness vs. Persecution. Liberty vs. Tyranny?) I tend to believe that I'm on the side of the angels on this one. (George Washington: "Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.") But does it really matter what our individual opinions are?

Anything important is important enough to measure. Unit cohesion is important to the members of our armed services. Let's measure unit cohesion. And let's publish the results. The real "why we fight" will be as interesting to the international community as to the U.S. taxpayers who underwrite the efforts of our military.