President Trump’s tweeted announcement this morning that he intends to ban transgender Americans from military service has, in the span of a few hours, again brought to the forefront the relationship between the U.S. military and broader cultural values.
The irony of the timing of today’s announcement, which historians were quick to note, is that it fell on the sixty-ninth anniversary of President Harry Truman’s executive order to desegregate the nation’s armed forces. Today’s events – and those of 1948 – are powerful reminders of the ability of the Commander-in-Chief to make the military more and less inclusive place — and to effect the rest of society along with it.
In a series of tweets, the historian Ronit Stahl quickly identified the issues at stake. Stahl, whose forthcoming book examines how the military grappled with religious pluralism during the twentieth century, emphasizes the role of the military in pushing the inclusion of marginalized groups. When people deemed as being on the margins of society are fully incorporated into the armed forces, other barriers weaken or collapse.
In my own research of World War I, I’ve found this to be true.
At the war’s outset, anti-Semitism ran rampant in American society. In the military, there was no provision for Jewish soldiers to have their religious practices recognized. Before the war, few Jews had served as chaplains for U.S. soldiers.
In 1917, however, American political, military, and religious leaders saw the armed forces as the ideal venue to enact a vision of a more religiously inclusive nation. One person who witnessed the effects of this policy firsthand was Lee Levinger. A recent graduate of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the young rabbi was one of the few Jewish chaplains to serve during the war.
During the 1920s, Levinger published a memoir of his wartime experiences, A Jewish Rabbi in France. The book recounted numerous ways in which the efforts to place Jewish Americans in positions of prominence helped to foster a more inclusive military. The rabbi told of time spent with Catholic and Protestant chaplains, in which they all respectfully discussed their various beliefs. He recalled ministering to Catholic and Protestant soldiers, including his oft-cited example of holding a Rosary for a dying Catholic serviceman.
By making inclusion the official military policy, individual soldiers encountered people from different faith traditions and became affirming of religious diversity. “The Jew from the East Side of New York who had never known any Christian except the corner policeman” now met “the Kentucky mountaineer, who had been reared with the idea that Jews had horns.” All involved “were bound to be broadened by the experience,” Levinger wrote.
Because of the military’s perceived position of exemplifying national values, small policies can have major effects in the broader culture. Of all the World War I chaplains, a mere half dozen of them were Jewish. But the small number of actual Jewish chaplains belied a much larger ideological campaign. Prominent military leaders, including General John Pershing, attended Rosh Hashanah celebrations. Worship services celebrating the dedication of new army facilities included a prayer offered by a rabbi.
Most significantly, these attitudes were carried back to the homefront. Domestic wartime descriptions of the United States idealized it as a country whose religious culture was defined not just by Protestantism and Catholicism, but by Judaism as well.
Historical circumstances like the religious inclusiveness of World War I speak to the promise and potential of the United States military. When political leaders strive to make the armed forces the embodiment of the nation’s aspirations, it can be a powerful institution for driving social change. Such was the case throughout the twentieth century on issues of religious, racial, and ethnic diversity.
Following this morning’s series of tweets, we are about to witness the opposite scenario. Just as the military has the power to push the U.S. to the full embodiment of its ideals, it has the ability to magnify our more intolerant and narrow-minded impulses.
That is the other lesson of World War I. After the conflict ended and the need of an inclusive military diminished, so too did the idealization of inclusiveness in the broader society. It took several more decades before the broader culture recaptured the spirit of pluralism displayed in 1917 and 1918.
Regrettably, President Trump might well have just put the same roadblock in the path of efforts to foster greater inclusion and affirmation of transgender Americans.