Commentary Magazine


Topic: John Sheehan

Sexual Orientation and the Military

Supporters of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy are finding it hard to make persuasive arguments in its favor. At least that’s the only conclusion I can draw from the bizarre suggestion put forward at a Senate hearing by John Sheehan, a retired four-star Marine general who once ran NATO’s Atlantic Command. He suggested that Dutch soldiers failed to prevent the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 because there were too many gays in the ranks! The Dutch reaction is on-target:

“It is astonishing that a man of his stature can utter such complete nonsense,” Dutch defense-ministry spokesman Roger van de Wetering said in response.

“The Srebrenica massacre and the involvement of UN soldiers was extensively investigated by the Netherlands, international organizations and the United Nations.

“Never was there in any way concluded that the sexual orientation of soldiers played a role.”

Next, perhaps, General Sheehan will suggest that Israel’s failure to more decisively defeat Hezbollah in 2006 was also due to the presence of openly gay service people. That might also explain Britain’s failure to pacify Basra. And the Spartans’ failure to defeat the Persians at Thermopylae. Or not.

Bizarre as this argument is, a rejoinder from British journalist Toby Young was just as weird. He writes, “Isn’t the General aware that some of the finest soldiers in the history of warfare have been ‘openly homosexual’?” Actually, while the sexuality of various generals such as Bernard Law Montgomery and Lord Kitchener has been much gossiped about, it is hard to think of any prominent commanders who were openly gay since the days of antiquity. The example Young cites is truly off-the-wall: Orde Wingate.

I happen to know a fair amount about Wingate, an unconventional British army officer who rose to fame commanding the Chindit special force in Japanese-held Burma in World War II. Previously he had served with distinction in Palestine and Abyssinia. He is still remembered in Israel for his strong Zionism. I’m writing about Wingate in my history of guerrilla warfare, and, having read pretty much everything that has been published about him, I have not found a single suggestion that he was homosexual. Until now.

Admittedly, Wingate was very odd; for instance, he received visitors to his quarters in the nude. But gay? If Young has any actual evidence to support this allegation, he doesn’t present it. Actually Wingate was devoted to his wife Lorna, an intelligent beauty whom he met in 1933 when she was just 16 years old and he was 31. He immediately dumped his fiancée and married her. His letters to her were full of longing and devotion. Young is making up history as he goes along by suggesting that there was something sexual about Wingate’s relationship with his aide Abraham Akavia, who worked with him in Palestine and Abyssinia.

The general point remains valid. There have undoubtedly been many brave, successful gay soldiers. But I object to the modern habit, especially common among trendy academics, of attributing homosexuality to random historical figures based on scant evidence — a trend that has even encompassed Abraham Lincoln. This is projecting our own obsession with sex into the past.

Supporters of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy are finding it hard to make persuasive arguments in its favor. At least that’s the only conclusion I can draw from the bizarre suggestion put forward at a Senate hearing by John Sheehan, a retired four-star Marine general who once ran NATO’s Atlantic Command. He suggested that Dutch soldiers failed to prevent the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 because there were too many gays in the ranks! The Dutch reaction is on-target:

“It is astonishing that a man of his stature can utter such complete nonsense,” Dutch defense-ministry spokesman Roger van de Wetering said in response.

“The Srebrenica massacre and the involvement of UN soldiers was extensively investigated by the Netherlands, international organizations and the United Nations.

“Never was there in any way concluded that the sexual orientation of soldiers played a role.”

Next, perhaps, General Sheehan will suggest that Israel’s failure to more decisively defeat Hezbollah in 2006 was also due to the presence of openly gay service people. That might also explain Britain’s failure to pacify Basra. And the Spartans’ failure to defeat the Persians at Thermopylae. Or not.

Bizarre as this argument is, a rejoinder from British journalist Toby Young was just as weird. He writes, “Isn’t the General aware that some of the finest soldiers in the history of warfare have been ‘openly homosexual’?” Actually, while the sexuality of various generals such as Bernard Law Montgomery and Lord Kitchener has been much gossiped about, it is hard to think of any prominent commanders who were openly gay since the days of antiquity. The example Young cites is truly off-the-wall: Orde Wingate.

I happen to know a fair amount about Wingate, an unconventional British army officer who rose to fame commanding the Chindit special force in Japanese-held Burma in World War II. Previously he had served with distinction in Palestine and Abyssinia. He is still remembered in Israel for his strong Zionism. I’m writing about Wingate in my history of guerrilla warfare, and, having read pretty much everything that has been published about him, I have not found a single suggestion that he was homosexual. Until now.

Admittedly, Wingate was very odd; for instance, he received visitors to his quarters in the nude. But gay? If Young has any actual evidence to support this allegation, he doesn’t present it. Actually Wingate was devoted to his wife Lorna, an intelligent beauty whom he met in 1933 when she was just 16 years old and he was 31. He immediately dumped his fiancée and married her. His letters to her were full of longing and devotion. Young is making up history as he goes along by suggesting that there was something sexual about Wingate’s relationship with his aide Abraham Akavia, who worked with him in Palestine and Abyssinia.

The general point remains valid. There have undoubtedly been many brave, successful gay soldiers. But I object to the modern habit, especially common among trendy academics, of attributing homosexuality to random historical figures based on scant evidence — a trend that has even encompassed Abraham Lincoln. This is projecting our own obsession with sex into the past.

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