To stare into the captivating gaze of Uncle Sam is to find a reflection of yourself and your values and your love of country. To see that narrow index finger pointed at you is to understand responsibility and duty toward country. Such was the intention of artist James Montgomery Flagg when he painted his famous “I Want You for U.S. Army” poster in 1917 and such was the effect that inspired millions to enroll in the U.S. armed forces during World War I and World War II as well as the Vietnam, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and all ephemeral moments of amity that rested uneasily between.
While the stoic face of Uncle Sam remains unchanged through decades of war and peace, the face of the army has evolved and been prodded into accepting new social norms. The largest changes came when Harry S. Truman integrated African Americans and regularized the role of females in the armed forces after World War II. In 1993, then President Bill Clinton attempted to take another overdue step by integrating gays and lesbians into the army. Clinton recognized the nation’s obligation to honor and reward minorities’ service. He fell short in achieving this goal, however, because of dogged military brass and stubborn Republican congressmen. Clinton’s efforts produced what is known as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, a compromise that allows gays to serve in the military so long as they do not reveal their homosexuality. The legislation was praised as a bipartisan compromise, but accolades treat the fallacious bill as if it were actually a political issue. The question of open gays in the army is not one of policy but of human rights; it cannot be negotiated. For it is the right of all Americans to fight for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” when these ideals are threatened, and for an American to have to deny his or her own identity to do this is antithetical to these inalienable rights. This month President Obama redressed Clinton’s folly by declaring that he would redefine the meaning of Uncle Sam’s “you” by repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
It is true that there are logistical obstacles to this policy reversal. There is the obvious problem of rampant homophobia in the armed forces. While 75 percent of Americans approve of gays and lesbians serving in the military, that number is dramatically lower amongst servicemen. In fact, 23 percent of servicemen said they might not reenlist if the law is repealed. Also, hate crimes against homosexuals in the army are commonplace. The savage ignorance of some of our bravest servicemen, though, will be defeated with the most severe reprimands when Obama follows through on his promise. We know that it is possible for the army to weed out this sick behavior because Truman forced similar change in the late ’40s.
Past generations stared into bellicose eyes and were inspired to defeat fascism, communism and terrorism. All this, while undermining an important subtlety in Flagg’s propagandistic masterpiece: there is no asterisk after the word “you.” Likewise, in the Declaration of Independence, there is no asterisk after the line “all men are created equal.” Flagg understood this connection and now, so will future American generations of all races, genders and sexualities.