The Corner

National Security & Defense

Military Fitness Is a Military Decision

So today we are talking about transgender troops, because that’s what President Trump tweeted about this morning. Maybe the most remarkable thing that happened in the aftermath of the tweets is that a flurry of Republican senators, many of them not the likeliest champions of transgender soldiers, came out in varying degrees of opposition or criticism. It’s clear that a good deal of this was due to the way in which Trump made the announcement (and since tweets are not executive orders, we don’t even know whether, when, or how he plans to implement this). John McCain, who currently serves as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, put out a statement that perfectly captured the problem:

The President’s tweet this morning regarding transgender Americans in the military is yet another example of why major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter.

The statement was unclear. The Department of Defense has already decided to allow currently-serving transgender individuals to stay in the military, and many are serving honorably today. Any American who meets current medical and readiness standards should be allowed to continue serving. There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train, and deploy to leave the military — regardless of their gender identity. We should all be guided by the principle that any American who wants to serve our country and is able to meet the standards should have the opportunity to do so — and should be treated as the patriots they are.

The Department of Defense is currently conducting a study on the medical obligations it would incur, the impact on military readiness, and related questions associated with the accession of transgender individuals who are not currently serving in uniform and wish to join the military. I do not believe that any new policy decision is appropriate until that study is complete and thoroughly reviewed by the Secretary of Defense, our military leadership, and the Congress.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will continue to follow closely and conduct oversight on the issue of transgender individuals serving in the military.

The military is no place for social experiments, or really any other social-policy battles, from the Left or the Right. The stakes are too high. The only issue in determining who serves in the military should be military fitness, readiness, and loyalty. Any deviation from those priorities gets people killed. Unfortunately, liberals and progressives have a habit of (1) hand-waving away any issues presented by, say, introducing women into previously all-male combat units, and then (2) setting about complaining that the culture of those units needs to change to accommodate women. We can expect the same pattern here.

Because this is an issue of military fitness and the good order and discipline of military units, there should be a strong presumption that those decisions be made by the people in uniform. The “chickenhawk” argument that nobody can have an opinion on military matters if they haven’t served is dumb and offensive on a lot of levels. Decisions of war, peace, and national security are too important to the nation to be left only to the soldiers and generals. But there’s an important lesson here on experts in general. Like any group of experts, the military needs to be left to manage its day-to-day affairs without a lot of outside interference, but also needs civilian oversight and subordination to civilian authority on the major, big-picture decisions. The question of fitness to serve is much more in the day-to-day affairs area, so the rest of us should generally stay out of it.

That distinction has long been one that a lot of Republicans respected. It’s why there was a lot of GOP opposition to Bill Clinton when he tried to introduce openly serving gays in the military over the objections of a lot of the military; by the time the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed in 2010, the military was less unified on the issue, and while most Republicans (including McCain) still opposed legislation repealing it, the arguments still tended to focus on whether the support for repeal by President Obama’s Joint Chiefs of Staff was representative of military opinion on the matter. Here, by contrast, DoD is looking into the issue, and most Republican senators are — properly — uncomfortable having to stake out a position without much backing or cover from the uniformed services. Thus, even military veterans like McCain and Joni Ernst are unwilling to give Trump their support on this without some backup from the military.

There are arguments both ways on this (although as usual, liberal commentary on the matter uniformly assumes that it’s completely impossible for there to ever be two sides to the argument). On the one hand, you can look anecdotally at individuals who have served successfully. On the other hand, the stress of combat brings to the fore all sorts of mental and emotional vulnerabilities, and by definition, you’re dealing here with a population of people suffering a mental disconnect with their own bodies, and who as a result have highly elevated rates of suicide and other major mental and emotional issues (to say nothing of ongoing requests for surgeries, therapies, and the like). One study, done in 2015 by the National Center for Transgender Equality found, for example:

Fifty three percent (53%) of USTS respondents aged 18 to 25 reported experiencing current serious psychological distress [compared to 10% of the general population] . . . Forty percent (40%) of respondents have attempted suicide at some point in their life, compared to 4.6% in the U.S. population. Forty-eight percent (48%) of respondents have seriously thought about killing themselves in the past year, compared to 4% of the U.S. population, and 82% have had serious thoughts about killing themselves at some point in their life . . . 29% of respondents reported illicit drug use, marijuana consumption, and/or nonmedical prescription drug use in the past month, nearly three times the rate in the U.S. population (10%). . . . The prevalence of HIV and AIDS has been found in prior research to be higher among transgender people than in the U.S. general population. . . . 

That’s a pretty big series of red flags. The question, from a military perspective, is whether it’s enough (combined with experiences at home and abroad with such soldiers and their effects on their units) to justify a ban, or simply to justify a higher level of scrutiny of individuals’ fitness to serve. That’s precisely the sort of question that ought to be handled by the military brass, or at least in careful consultation with them. Without that input, even Republicans who might agree with Trump aren’t going to stick their necks out on this one.


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