The Equality Filter: Legitimizing Civil Rights through Militarization

America is in the business of conflict. Since WWII, the US has been engaged in war, conflict, or police action for 66 of the last 72 years, and for 216 of the 237 years we’ve been a country our military has been fighting, killing, occupying, or threatening with nuclear weapons. “Terrorism” is now a ubiquitous and tired threat that induces a persistent low-level fear and passivity, which in turn secures consistent funding for the military and defense contracts.  The deployment of “precision military strikes,” drones, and soldiers overseas is premised on delivering justice or securing democracy, but in reality the U.S. Administration is usually dealing with the fallout of poor past policy decisions.

And yet… there have been some significant civil rights developments that were expedited through the war-making apparatus. Desegregation in the military preceded the ruling of 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka by several years. The repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) headed the repeal of DOMA, and the DOD has already surpassed the Federal government in providing universal benefits to the same-sex spouses of Active Duty military and retired veterans. After lifting the career-restrictive combat exclusion policy in January 2013, Congress and the Pentagon also recently announced the creation of gender-neutral standards for men and women serving in combat units will be signed into law. This is an enormous milestone for military women and their families, not to mention the greater implications of employment equality in other sectors.

So how can one reconcile the desire for a more just and equitable society while at the same time acknowledging that the recognition of individual and group civil rights has been, to a certain degree, facilitated by the military institution?

I face this dilemma having come from a family where military service is almost a family business (my mother, step-father, father, grandfather, uncles, and my husband have all served). I say this having served five years in the US Army myself.

While the military has been a bellwether of civil rights advancement in the U.S., it has more often facilitated America’s oppression of marginalized persons both here and abroad. Hazing, sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault, racist practices, war crimes, extended occupations, “collateral damage,” indefinite detentions, and torturous interrogation techniques have been imprinted on the American psyche, normalized to a certain degree through media and pop culture glorification of war. The widespread deployment of the United States Armed Forces has made military occupation seem common place. The international opinion of America’s obsession with defense isn’t complimentary, but domestically the military culture is a very successfully propagated ideology. Support the troops! Patriotism! Sacrifice! Honor! America! Oh, and Bud light, football, and whatever other corporate interests latch onto the pro-military bandwagon to make some dollars.

Although specific military policies like the combat exclusion for women and DADT may seem to accelerate civil rights action in America when they are lifted or repealed, these policies may play a more harmful role in their very existence in the first place. Rather than acting as a mirror of society, simply reflecting the current national social temperament, the military institution is acting as the definer of civil rights and citizenship in broader American society. Presently, a significant argument to reform immigration is leaning heavily on the fact that many immigrants choose military service as a path to citizenship. Even undocumented family members of military members may avoid deportation because of their relationship to the service member, and there is also a campaign² to allow certain undocumented immigrants to enlist in the service. Military service establishes value in citizenship in otherwise disqualified individuals; military service compensates for other lacking characteristics. Conversely, groups prohibited from military service are diminished as citizens. Individuals in these groups are viewed as “less than” as long as they are defined so by the military institution, for those who aren’t permitted to participate fully in the military aren’t “real” citizens.

Legitimization of citizenship through military service is a troubling model: in order for a group’s rights to be widely recognized and accepted by society, they must first be filtered through the military institution. Definition of acceptable conduct in the military determines acceptable conduct in the greater civilian society. For example, the very concept of DADT was designed to allow gay women and men to serve in the military while “protecting” them from abuse or harassment (by placing a prohibition on homosexual activities or individual identification) but in fact DADT likely led to higher levels of abuse, isolation, and disenfranchisement because individuals were unable to report mistreatment without risking disclosure of their sexual orientation, and subsequently losing their jobs¹. This reinforced existing anti-gay prejudices, and legitimized the broader view that gay and lesbian Americans weren’t justified to equal rights or protections in the civilian sector. Similarly, the combat exclusion (which in recent years was largely disregarded) that “protected” female soldiers by prohibiting them from serving in combat roles acted instead as a method to reduce access to benefits and acknowledgement as legitimate troops. The policy also made it difficult for women who had served their country in the same combat zones as their male counterparts to obtain recognition and proper care and disability ratings when recovering from the same mental health issues. Again, this policy, along with the current selective service requirements, has had a larger impact outside of the military where women were not (are not) recognized as full citizens.

Transgendered individuals are facing enormous obstacles gaining social and legal equity; this is compounded by the fact that they are prohibited from serving in the military at all if they have had any surgical genital modifications, or if they disclose their transgender identity prior to or after enlisting. So unlike women and gay service members, transgendered individuals are granted no legitimacy as citizens whatsoever as defined by military. And for other populations that will never meet restrictive military service requirements (individuals with reduced physical or cognitive abilities, certain religious practices, advanced age, or mental illness), American society’s propensity for viewing citizenship through the lens of military normative characteristics may place those populations forever outside the reach of full citizenship.

It is past time that advances for gay soldiers and women are taking place in the military, and it’s certainly time to examine how best to integrate transgendered individuals into the service as well; the successful elimination of DADT and the positive progression for women in the service have both demonstrated that transgendered individuals should not be restricted from work as service members (or any other profession) based solely on their gender identification. The “right” to serve in the military should not be read as the “right” to full citizenship, nor should the military be able to establish service requirements that interfere with individual or group civil rights except with regard to mission readinessHowever, the rights of an individual should be recognized not through or because of the military institution, but as inalienable rights regardless of any institution.

1.A Federal court in California ruled that DADT was unconstitutional a full year before it was officially repealed.