Leading Article: It's a man's life

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PRESIDENT CLINTON'S campaign pledge to lift the ban on homosexuals serving in the American armed forces has aroused deep, though irrational, emotions. Fighting men (and, these days, women) live in close proximity in barracks or tents, and, in extremis, their lives may depend on the degree of trust and understanding between small groups of comrades-in-arms.

The issue has, for the present, replaced abortion as the great emotive cause that is dividing liberal Americans from those concerned to uphold what they see as traditional values. There is an atavistic feeling, shared by many millions in the United States who would not otherwise admit to any degree of homophobia, that it is fundamentally wrong to allow avowed homosexuals to join the forces. A similarly unthinking view is taken in this country by the Government, the Ministry of Defence and senior military personnel, and many of the Labour Party's leaders. Homosexuality in the British armed forces has been decriminalised, but it still results in instant dismissal.

At the crudest level, prejudice against homosexuals in the armed forces in Britain, as in the United States, is based on a stereotypical belief that they are all 'effeminate' and would not make good fighters; or on the offensive and inaccurate assumption that homosexuals suffer from an uncontrollable urge to proselytise or to seduce. The Spartans employed regiments of homosexuals because they were believed to fight with particular ferocity in defence of those with whom they served. From Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to T E Lawrence, evidence accumulates that homosexuality is no bar to military skill, physical strength, loyalty to colleagues - or to a combative nature.

There are, however, areas of concern. On the one hand, young servicemen, or those of junior rank, could find themselves coming under pressure from more senior homosexuals who could play favourites. On the other hand, many members of the armed services might find it distasteful to serve in close proximity to people who were openly homosexual. Tensions could explode into violence, as happened recently in the US Navy when a homosexual seaman, who 'came out' and asked for a discharge, was murdered by shipmates.

In recent years, the US forces have integrated women into fighting units. Women served on Royal Navy ships in the Gulf. Until half a century ago, America's armed forces were racially segregated because, it was said, blacks and whites would not easily get along together in small groups. Many white servicemen would supposedly find it offensive to shower or sleep beside blacks. People would be harassed or favoured according to the colour of their skin. It would be impossible to maintain discipline. In fact, the armed forces were desgregated, quickly and relatively peacefully, more than a decade before the southern states went through the violent convulsions of the civil rights campaign.

Colin Powell, the popular chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, is a black of West Indian ancestry, and the most visible beneficiary of the determination of the US Army to stamp out one form of discrimination. It should not be beyond him to devise and enforce procedures for the phased removal of anti-homosexual discrimination. Where America leads, this country will surely follow.