In September, 1992, I bought an autographed copy of Joe Steffan's Honor Bound (Villard, 1992) at a book-signing. Its 245 pages detailing his frantic race for the finish line as a midshipman at the Naval Academy, his own personal "coming out," his expulsion for acknowledging who he was just a few weeks before graduating near the top of his class, his account of the Navy's tactics, and the legal battle that followed, as well as the reaction of his family -- it played out before my imagination like an Oliver Stone film. But this is more than the story behind one of the pivotal cases of "The Ban"; it suggests a few moral principles fundamental to an evolving modern world centered much more around the individual than any society in the past. Its central issue: What makes someone trustworthy, and what makes one successful in life?
Joe's narrative of his adventures at the Naval Academy are partly pure adventure, partly a musical sonata-allegro, and partly an epic poem. We see the regimentation and hazing of plebes to which he easily adjusted, his career in the Academy choirs culminating in two appearances singing the national anthem at the Army-Navy football classic, his summer submarine cruises complete with chess games, his taking his Academy choir to see A Chorus Line, his own evolving leadership as an upperclassman. What an opportunity a service academy education is for the right person -- a chance to see the world and grow quickly into adulthood while getting paid to do it.
How does one make it in this kind of environment? It takes incredible concentration and focus; yet, military life is very structured: There are no mortgage payments, corporate downsizings or hostile takeovers to worry about, nothing in the environment to take your life away from you if you're good enough at military routine, stay focused, and can cram in your studies in a very compressed time.
His subsequent account of his dismissal is indeed riveting, but what makes his story is the way he wraps everything around the notion of personal identity. On page 16, he writes:
"What can be better than allowing people to live their lives as they chose, to give them the freedom to take the limited time they have on earth and craft an existence that is uniquely theirs?"
Now, isn't this the central idea -- not only personal freedom but also personal autonomy -- around which the conflicts in modern society revolve? After all, the painful restructuring of the economy and workplace, the mergers, down-sizings, and resulting "layoffs" are arbitrarily denying people of average means control over their own lives, so that others can get rich. Well, not exactly. Any of us who live a comfortable, "productive" life have always depended on the risk-taking of others in ways we don't think about anyway.
Joe talks a lot about the paradox of individual excellence, on the one hand, and teamwork, bonding, task and social cohesion, on the other, as the military must install both in its future officers. After all, doesn't the head-shaving on the first day of Plebe Summer make everybody "the same"? And, one of the worst offenses is bilging, deliberately making a teammate look bad by showing off. But one specific virtue of military teamwork is fungibility, the ability of each team member to every other team member's job.
But, gradually individual performance and character take over, and central to all of this is the Honor Code. Steffan obviously believes that personal honor is the trait that earns a person his right to a "unique existence." And, on p. 145 he defines it without compromise:
"Personal honor is an absolute -- you either have honor or you do not. No one can take it from you; it can only be surrendered willingly. And once it is surrendered, once it is compromised, it can never again be fully regained."
Someday, this may be known as one of the most powerful statements in American literature. The context for this principle, of course, was Steffan's answer to the question, "are you a homosexual?" (which had been brought about by an NIS investigation that should never have been initiated). The answer, a proud, "yes, Sir, I am" -- and his refusal to hide his inner self just to get his Navy commission, is now the underlying legal problem with most of the constitutional challenges to The Ban (whether "old" or "new" policy, which in practice are the same). "Equal protection" challenges to The Ban are not likely to succeed because gays are not a legally protected class, and "Due Process" challenges may be undermined somewhat by Hardwick, but the "Free Speech" challenge, based on this principle, could prove compelling indeed. That is, the statement "I am gay" is now held to be a statement of personal identity, something much broader than a "propensity" to engage in forbidden sexual acts. Of course, to convince conservative Justices of this will be no simple feat. What does this "identity" consist of? Perhaps the desire to explore mated psychological bonds for their own sake rather than for social approval, as suggested by psychotherapist Paul Rosenfels in the 1970's? Perhaps a biological gift -- not sexual attraction per se, but a hypersensitivity to color and form that tends to make homosexual interest more likely? At least, in the recent decision by 3 Republican Appellate Judges in the 9th Circuit, the intangibility of this notion of identity seems to be overcome if the character of the person making the declaration is strong enough. Keith Meinhold, after all, made famous the simple explanation, "I am proud of who I am."
Honor has to be the most important part of a person's credibility. Civilized living requires that men and women be able to trust each other. Honor, in the workplace, would mean that when one actually sells one's work to the public, one has done the work with total concentration and will warrant the work to the best of his or her ability. In the military, lives depend on this. In the civilian world, the viability of businesses ultimately depend on trust.
But Joe's thesis makes us ponder what causes people to have, or not to have, honor. Some criminals, of course, simply have no moral values and care about nothing except their own gratification -- we call this sociopathy. But more disturbing is the growing tendency towards dishonesty. We saw this recently in the Naval Academy's cheating scandal long after Steffan's dismissal; a Navy that kept Joe Steffan probably would not have experienced a Tailhook, a cheating scandal, a Schindler murder, or the constant discipline problems associated with spousal abuse. A more chilling example is the ring of "insider trading," associated with takeovers and mergers, that went on in the securities markets throughout the 1980's. It seems the perpetrators were giving away the fact that they really couldn't earn an honest living, and stay "comfortable," if they were forced to do so by honest free-market competition (or by the Darwinian values forced on today's workplace.) In fact, the underlying cause of un-trustworthiness may be defensiveness, a person's suspicion that he doesn't really have what it takes to make it. Perhaps the biggest problem of defensiveness is that it keeps one from learning enough to keep up. The military paradigm is important for two reasons: It provides one way to overcome defensiveness by complete concentration on performance in a team environment, and it provides a chance to pay one's dues.
Conservatives like to point out a main reason for people not making it -- the breakdown of the family. Men, especially, supposedly need to have responsibilities as husbands and fathers in order to remain useful adults and "trustworthy" citizens. A deeper reason may simply be the need for genuine human ties -- even getting back to bonding and teamwork. There are certainly other ways some people can make genuine commitments to others outside of the traditional nuclear family. But this requires the freedom to be honest about the deepest parts of one's personal identity, sexuality. The aversion to "don't ask and don't tell" comes from the realization that the "privacy" paradigm just doesn't always work in this competitive, decentralized brave new world. Yet gays (men particularly) are going to remain under pressure that their identity is something more than a juvenile narcissism and upward affiliation.
Joe Steffan's book should make us ponder the character of the "best and brightest" of tomorrow's leaders. When we supposedly pick the cream of the crop for military service academies and over 100 of them cheat on an electrical engineering exam (60 Minutes, 9/11/94), we ought to be very concerned. Has the world become too competitive, too "me-centered"; has the balance provided by family and by "teamwork" been lost? Joe's book is also a movie that just has to be made, a film that could put away The Ban for good.
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