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Military Culture: United States  
 
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Although the United States military strives to create a common culture among its service personnel, it is neither a monolithic nor stable entity. Similarly, the U. S. military's relation to homosexuality is extremely complex and contradictory. On the one hand, it has until recently defined itself explicitly in opposition to homosexuality, but in practice, it has often facilitated the very behavior and, through its regulatory policies and their inconsistent enforcement, promoted the identities it has attempted to exclude.

Throughout the U. S. military, common elements distinguish its culture from other organizations. These elements include a high standard of discipline that helps organize and structure the armed forces, a professional ethos of loyalty and self-sacrifice that maintains order during battle, a distinct set of ceremony and etiquette that help create shared rituals and common identities, and an emphasis on group cohesion and esprit de corps that connect service members to each other.

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Yet military officials insist that any discussion of U. S. military culture must take into account the distinct cultures and traditions of each service branch. Over the years, the U. S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard have all developed their own uniforms, rituals, institutions, and organizational strengths that make each unique.

As the oldest service branch, the U. S. Army continues to define itself in terms of its most triumphant historical experience, World War II, and its vision of ultimate service to the nation. Moreso than other branches, it remains structurally dependent on its Cold War-era divisions and has moved slowly towards creating more rapidly deployable and flexible forces. In spite of its resistance to structural change, the U. S. Army has most successfully integrated racial minorities into its ranks. As of 2000, 40% of active Army personnel were racial minorities.

In contrast, the youngest service branch is the U. S. Air Force, and its culture is most distinguished by its dependence on and enthusiasm for technology. In recent years, the Air Force has continued to develop new aircraft even at the expense of maintaining high levels of personnel. Even so, its reliance on such expensive equipment requires very large combat and services support structures, resulting in the greatest integration of women of any service. Women comprise 18% of Air Force personnel, and almost all its positions are open to them.

The Inconsistent Exclusion of Homosexuality

Cultural differences between branches notwithstanding, in relation to issues of race, gender, and sexuality, Mary Fainsod Katzenstein and Judith Reppy caution us not to place too much importance on the "complex and competing elements of military culture." Instead they encourage us to interrogate the values that the armed forces especially privilege.

Until the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" became effective on September 20, 2011, the entire military ostensibly conformed to anti-gay regulations. Even following repeal each branch continues to follow the Uniform Code of Military Justice laws that prohibit and other forms of same-sex sexual behavior.

Officially, the U. S. military defined itself in opposition to homosexuality after World War I when the Articles of War went into effect in 1917, outlawing sodomy. Since then, the U. S. military subscribed to a variation of the idea that "homosexuality is incompatible with military service," a position that was first codified in 1981 and remained in effect until 2011.

Yet as much as the military openly distanced itself from homosexuality, it could never rid itself of gay and lesbian service members. Allan Bérubé and Leisa Meyer have shown that the military's attempt to exclude homosexuals and prohibit homosexuality during World War II was unsuccessful. Worried that the military was allowing homosexuals into the services, military officials developed an elaborate system to bar gays and lesbians from the armed forces. They used doctors and psychiatrists to interview and evaluate suspected homosexuals at induction and prevent them from serving.

Largely dependent on stereotypical gender markers and direct questions about sexual orientation, these techniques proved futile: gay men and lesbians who fit stereotypical gender roles simply "passed" and those who knew themselves to be homosexual and wanted to serve often lied.

Ironically, these attempts to regulate gay and lesbian identity introduced hundreds of thousands of young Americans to the idea of gay and lesbian identity, inadvertently foregrounding the very sexuality the military had hoped to rid itself of. And once in the military, gay and lesbian service members found themselves living in same-sex environments that often facilitated their meeting each other and the creation of fledgling homosexual communities.

The relative tolerance of gays and lesbians in the military during World War II is true of other wars. In fact, the U. S. military has a record of retaining gays and lesbians during times of war, only to discharge them during peace.

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