For the week of March 24, 1999  thru March 30, 1999  

Shame on Gen. Colin Powell

Commentary by PAT MURPHY

To the ranks of U.S. military brass who want it both ways, add the name of Gen. Colin Powell, who shows a mastery of familiar doublespeak.

During his much-touted visit to Boise last week to hail Idaho’s admirable efforts to ensure brotherhood throughout, the retired joint chiefs chairman was asked to square his contradiction on gays – on one hand, condemning discrimination of gay Americans in the civilian community, but endorsing discrimination against gays in the military.

Simple, Gen. Powell said, turning to the Pentagon’s simple-minded explanation that sounds like Peter Sellers comedy gag but actually is serious Pentagonese.

Military life, Powell explained, is "different"-- i.e., because GIs bunk in close quarters, the risk of unwanted advances from homosexuals is worrisome.

But let some scandal erupt in of the military branches – such as drugs, embezzlement, espionage, rape or the like – and Gen.. Powell and his peers talk out of the other side of their mouths: the military, they coo, is no different than civilian society, and is merely a reflection of the good and bad and spew the rush up to Capitol Hill and armed forces.

The pity of Powell’s doublespeak is that he indirectly owes his career to President Harry Truman’s gutsiness ending racial segregation in the armed forces in the late 1940s, despite strident outcries from race-baiting Dixiecrats, White Citizens Councils and the hooded nightriders of the KKK who wielded immense political power in those days.

Had Truman caved to racists, as politicians then did with unblinking shamelessness, one wonders whether Powell would ever have become a general, and therefore missed being in Boise collecting $75,000 for his lecture about brotherhood.

Powell and his peers know that the military’s big sex problem isn’t gays, but heterosexual predators. Last week’s court martial of the two-star general who preyed on wives of his subordinates is far more typical than any threat from gay GIs.

Now that he’s collecting a fat military pension and picking up speaking fees in one evening that’re twice the average annual family income, Powell owes the public some courage for a change the likes of which Harry Truman showed.

Powell could’ve earned his $75,000 fee had he declared it’s time for the military to accept gays, as other nations have, and give up the inquisition.

Banning gays is relatively new. In his 1990 book, "Coming Out Under Fire: A History of Gay Men and Women in World War II," author Allan Berube documents how gays served not only heroically and without controversy in WWII, but with the military’s blessing.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that religious zealots prodded weak-minded politicians and political generals and admirals into a witch hunt for gays that has cost an estimated half a billion dollars just in the past decade.

Except for the cliché that homosexuality threatens good order and discipline, the Pentagon has yet to prove that gays in the military in fact are a threat.

Worse, the Pentagon suffers the humiliation of having to admit that each gay who gets the boot has an unblemished service record.

Treating a member of the U.S., military as a second-class citizen simply because he or she is gay is what the military did to Gen. Powell’s race in years past because of their skin color.

Shame, again, on Gen. Powell for forgetting the lesson of discrimination.


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