Eric Fanning as first gay Army secretary: A signal to military culture?

The first openly gay US Army secretary, Eric Fanning, has the power to influence policy and promotion and, thus, set a tone for Army culture. But does he still need to? 

REUTERS/Chris Muncy/U.S. Air National Guard/Handout
Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning speaks to 300 members of the 106th Rescue Wing, New York Air National Guard during a visit to Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach, New York on July 25, 2013. U.S. President Barack Obama nominated Eric Fanning to become the next secretary of the Army, the White House said on September 18, 2015, paving the way for the first openly gay leader of a military service branch in U.S. History. Picture taken on July 25, 2013.

If confirmed by the Senate, the first openly gay US Army secretary, Eric Fanning, could help lead America’s corps of fighting men and women into uncharted territory, on many fronts.

As a civilian leader, Mr. Fanning, who has already served acting Secretary of the Air Force in the Obama administration, has the power to influence policy and promotion and, thus, set a tone for Army culture. That culture remains resistant, to an extent, to open integration of gay soldiers into the ranks and the promotion of women into combat roles.

Until 2011, soldiers were regularly expelled from the ranks after brass found out that they were gay. The expulsions were in part justified to maintain esprit de corps.

In that light, President Barack Obama’s decision on Friday to promote Fanning may be indicative of a concerted White House effort to not just set policy, but build a new, more accepting military culture at a time when the US defense forces are are facing budget cuts and a post-Ira and post-Afghanistan drawdown that will likely reduce the Army to its smallest size since World War II.

That consolidation suggests Fanning’s tenure could be a critical one, especially coming after significant policy shifts under new Defense Secretary Ash Carter, for whom Fanning has served as chief of staff since March.

Some Fanning critics worry that any focus on changing the tenor of military life could come at the expense of military effectiveness, especially as the US faces threats from several directions in the global theater.

But critics will have to contend with the Michigan-born Fanning’s record of more than two decades of work on US military policy, including major Pentagon management roles in the US fighter jet and shipbuilding programs. 

Fanning “undoubtedly has a masterful grasp on military policy … [and] further, having an openly gay individual in high level positions within the Department of Defense sets the tone at the top” to better understand the needs of gay soldiers and their families, said Matt Thorn, interim executive director of OutServe-Service members Legal Defense Network, a Washington-based organization that seeks LGBT equality in the military.

But others indicate that Fanning's sexual orientation won't be an issue within the US Army. The Washington Post quoted Iraq war veteran Phil Carter, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security: "My sense is that the Army is over this and has been over it for some time. The Army cares whether you can shoot straight, not whether you are straight."

Indeed, since the US ended its 17-year-long “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2011, predictions that straight soldiers would leave the service and morale would plummet have not been borne out by facts on the ground, according to anonymous administration officials cited by The New York Times.

Some soldiers expelled as homosexuals are now fighting for honorable discharges. But the Pentagon focus lately has been more about resistance to women in the military. While female Army soldiers are moving toward real combat roles, the US Marines have pushed back against the idea of having women on the battlefield.

The nomination comes amid tumultuous turnover at the Pentagon, including the surprise announcement by Mr. Carter last week that Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Neller bypassed a bevy of more senior officers to be named the new Marine Commandant.

At an at-times acrimonious confirmation hearing in July, Lt. Gen. Neller was pressed  on the US policy of focusing on air power to strike at the emerging Islamic State, or ISIS, in Iraq.

When asked if he thought ISIS was losing or winning, “Neller replied, “I believe they’re at a stalemate.”

Given that backdrop, Obama critics framed Fanning’s nomination as evidence of a key flaw of the President’s military policy – focusing on identity sensitivities while military threats brew around the world, particularly from ISIS.

“Hopefully [Fanning’s nomination] will distract people from the fact that we’re losing the war,” wrote University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds on his conservative InstaPundit blog.

For his part, Fanning has tried to lighten the mood around his rise as a key civilian leader at the Pentagon.

After being named acting Air Force Secretary last winter, Fanning joked at a Pentagon function that he would not, despite the rumors, order all US military planes painted pink.

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