Entry from September 27, 2010

Of all the arguments put forward by the advocates of admitting open homosexuals to the armed forces, some good, some bad, the weakest, it seems to me, is that the current “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” convention — it is rather a response to a law than the law itself, which still bans “homosexual behavior” — requires gays in the military to “lie.” So I was naturally disappointed to find someone who is normally so acute an observer of the world’s diplomatic and military realities as Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal falling foul of it in his column the other day. He quotes the opinion of retired Major General Dennis Laich, who appears to have spent his retirement in a not very profitable study of ethics, as saying that “If you talk to most theologians, ethicists or philosophers, they”ll tell you there are two kinds of lies, of commission or omission. . . ‘Don”t Ask Don’t Tell’ represents a lie of omission that is inconsistent with the values of a military organization that presents itself as values-based.”

Nonsense. A lie, whether of omission or of commission, is primarily a breach of faith. Where there is no obligation of faith there can be no breach of faith and therefore no lie. If you pretend to your enemy that you’re invading at Calais and you’re really invading by way of the Cherbourg peninsula, that is not a lie because you have no obligation of faith to your enemy. If you tell your wife you’re going bowling and you really go to a strip club, that is a lie, because you have an obligation of faith to your wife — though not to just anybody who might be interested in where you were last night. Most people think — indeed, the whole gay “liberation” movement is based on the assumption — that it is only to your wife or significant other that you have any obligation of faith when it comes to your sexual behavior. When nosy neighbors with nothing but prurient curiosity as their motivation want to know about it, it would be absurd to say that not telling them the truth was a “lie of omission.”

On the contrary, it is a form of the virtue of discretion, as is also “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Discretion is or ought to be at least as much a military “value” as truth-telling where the obligation of good faith exists. It is not only not lying but almost the opposite of a lie. For it is possible to breach the obligation of faith in the other direction as well. It is possible, that is, to “share” too much of what ought to remain private. The obligation to respect one’s own privacy may sound like a strange concept, but it is just a way of saying discretion — a word that was once widely understood and is now not. Your obligation is not only to the other party to acts you have performed in private but also to those for whom knowledge of those acts is inappropriate, even if they want to know about them.

General Laich’s simplistic notion of “lying” is like that of Swift’s Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels, who have no word for “lie” but the circumlocutory “to say a thing which is not.” This, I take it is just one of the many gifts of the contemporary media culture, for whom complete openness about everything — except its own biases, of course — with everybody is itself the principal article of faith. The right to know, if it ever really existed would simply abolish discretion, and in spite of the media’s belief that everything must be shared, most people still don’t share it. Hence the phrase: “Too Much Information.” It is the height of perversity to pretend that it is lying if you keep your sexual behavior to yourself and the other person involved and decline either to burden or to titillate others with it.

Now it’s true that the military provides what may appear to be an exception to this obligation not to share, since heterosexual soldiers do quite often talk among themselves about their exploits with women. But to think of this form of bragging as the antithesis of lying would be to be naive in the extreme. On the contrary, most of the sex-talk of soldiers is the special kind of lying that comes under the heading of that once useful and now almost forgotten word “yarning.” But it is yarning with a purpose. It is yarning in order to reassure those for whom comradeship in situations of extreme danger has created an intense bond of friendship that these feelings are not sexual ones — a necessary reassurance if that bond, sometimes called “unit cohesion,” is to remain strong. You’d think that Major General Laich would be able to figure this out for himself without the help of theologians, ethicists or philosophers.

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