March 19th, 2010
When Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee invited retired General Jack Sheehan to speak in opposition to allowing openly gay soldiers to serve in the US Military, they certainly didn’t think he would start an international incident with his comments. But as it has turned out, Sheehan’s comments have now become a point of anger, ire, and ridicule around the world.
Sheehan sought to counter one of the most compelling arguments for lifting the ban on gay servicemen: that many of our allies have done so without problem. He wanted to persuade committee members that, indeed, modern militaries that have “liberalized” their forces and allowed gay soldiers to serve have suffered dramatic consequences.
So Sheehan blamed one of Europe’s military blunders, the inept protection of a town in Bosnia by Dutch peace-keeping forces, on these liberalizing perspectives, and in particular the policy of including gay soldiers. And he claimed that he had this on the authority of Henk van der Breemen, the Netherlands Chief of Defense Staff.
The massacre of 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica is an important event in the modern history and culture of the Dutch people. The Netherlands government commissioned a study and delved deeply into the causes which contributed to the inadequate defense, and the event led to the ouster of van der Breemen and eventually the resignation of Prime Minister Wim Kok. And while the Dutch take responsibility for their part in the tragedy, they rightly note that other nations share blame as well for not committing adequate resources and for not sending air response when requested.
To speak of this event – and to claim Dutch sources – from an outsider’s perspective was a most incautious action. And is was also unwise not to recognize that the Dutch pride themselves in their acceptance of gay people into the fabric of their culture and life and that they see statements that appear to be homophobic as boorish and personally offensive.
Though not exactly a parallel, testifying that the Dutch military leaders blamed the massacre at Srebrenica on gay Dutch soldiers is a bit like some foreign official claiming that Dwight Eisenhower had told him that the incarceration of Japanese-Americans was the fault of Jews. It is irrational, touches on matters of national shame, is deeply insulting and causes an immediate anger, disgust, and revulsion.
And, indeed, the Dutch have been deeply insulted. And have responded vehemently to deny any connection between the events in Bosnia and the Dutch policy of allowing gay soldiers.
The statement has been denounced by van der Breemen, who called it “absolute nonsense” and stated that he does not and never has shared Sheehan’s views on gay soldiers.
The Dutch Ambassador to the United States, Renée Jones-Bos, released a statement saying that she couldn’t disagree more.
I take pride in the fact that lesbians and gays have served openly and with distinction in the Dutch military forces for decades, such as in Afghanistan at the moment.
The military mission of Dutch UN soldiers at Srebrenica has been exhaustively studied and evaluated, nationally and internationally. There is nothing in these reports that suggests any relationship between gays serving in the military and the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims.
As we noted yesterday, the Dutch military was quick to respond. But the statements caught the attention of the Dutch people and the government of the Netherlands and seemed to slur the identity of the Dutch as a people. A reader informs us that the story was on the news all day and the claims elicited response from several officials. (New York Times)
The Dutch defense minister, Eimert van Middelkoop, added that the comments were, “scandalous and unbefitting a soldier.” Maxime Verhagen, the Dutch foreign minister, chimed in on Twitter, calling the explanation of what happened at Srebrenica “extremely strange.” Jan Kleian, the head of the Dutch military union ACOM, told Dutch television, “That man is just crazy.” He added, “That sounds harsh, but what else can I say, because it is complete nonsense.”
The anger and response went to the highest level of government (WaPo)
The Dutch prime minister Friday denounced as “irresponsible” a claim by a retired U.S. general that gay Dutch soldiers were partly to blame for allowing Europe’s worst massacre since World War II.
Dutch officials, from the Cabinet to the military, were outraged by retired Gen. John Sheehan’s remarks at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
But this story is not limited to US and Dutch media. Media from around the world, including many nations that are allies and whom allow openly gay soldiers, have picked up the retired general’s comments. And, as reported, they appear to show contempt for foreign militaries and for the soldiers who are fighting by our side in Afghanistan and Iraq.
So now we have an international incident. Now our perception around the world has been tarnished. And now our State Department has had its job made more difficult.
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