War (What is it Good for?) is a song made popular by Motown artist Edwin Starr and later performed by Bruce Springsteen.
For most of my adulthood, the United States has been in a perpetual state of war. From LBJ’s foray into Viet Nam to Reagan’s short war in Grenada to the Bush family’s never-ending wars in the Middle East, wars have been part of American life and their impact will be felt for years to come. Unlike World War II which was my parents’ war, my wars have generally not had a direct impact on me or my family. I was in the Army in the early 70s, but was lucky enough not to be sent to the war zone. Thankfully, no close friends or relatives were killed in these wars. So the only impact to me is hidden – higher taxes for me and my offspring to pay for these overseas adventures. For today’s generation the impact is even less – wars are paid for by credit card bookkeeping, and with no draft, young men and women can opt out of the direct sacrifices that wars necessitate.
Wars have many facets, and these can be broken down into three components – scientific, political, and societal.
The scientific component is, of course, is the main purview of the oddly-named Defense Department. It consists of the strategy and tactics not only to execute the wars that we are in today, but also to plan for just about any war you can think about in the future.
The political component is where wars are planned, started, and occasionally ended. Centered in the State Department, it consists of forging alliances – sometimes with friends, sometimes with enemies – and is driven by economics as much or more than by ideology.
Finally, there’s the societal component. Due to the urgency and focus in executing a war’s tactics, wars tend to act as an impetus or a catalyst on changes in a society’s customs. We saw this in World War II, where Rosie the Riveter and the Tuskegee Airmen jump started the acceptance of women and African-Americans into the workplace and integrated society, respectively. Today, we are observing a similar phenomenon. Just like during World War II, when many military leaders were opposed to training African-American airmen, today some in the military are opposed to allowing gays and lesbians to serve their country. Today’s “Don’t Ask – Don’t Tell” policy is just as egregious as the “separate but equal” segregation of the Air Corps’ pilot training in the 1940s. But as flawed as they are, these are steps that society has found necessary to segue into full equality. We are on the verge of eliminating the scourge of DADT, and heroes and role models will emerge from the gay community’s actions in our society, just as heroic leaders like General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr emerged from the ill-named Tuskegee Experiment.
The repeal of DADT won’t guarantee full equality for gays and lesbians, just as the Civil Rights Act which passed 20 years after the end of World War II was not a panacea for equal rights for African-Americans. However, it’s a start. The struggle for equal rights is another never-ending war. But it’s one worth fighting.