President Trump’s tweeted ban on transgender persons serving in the U.S. military has restarted the perennial debate about the relation between military service and social policy.
Writing in The Washington Times, columnist Rebecca Hagelin opposed the integration of transgender troops: “Social engineering,” she wrote, “is not the purpose of the United States’ armed forces.” Meanwhile, Ash Carter, who as Barack Obama’s secretary of defense lifted the ban on transgender individuals in 2016, used similar terms in condemning President’s Trump’s tweet: “To choose service members on other grounds than military qualifications…is social policy and has no place in our military.”
In fact, as I found while researching the story of African-American soldiers and of immigrant recruits during World War I for my book “Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality,” the armed forces have played a vital role in shaping American social policy toward the country’s minorities.
Race and the right to serve
The right to serve in the common defense has always been a fundamental civil right in the U.S. and a hallmark of full citizenship.
Originally, the prerogative to serve in the militia was restricted to “freemen” or citizens. A few blacks had served in state and federal units in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. But it was not until the Civil War that blacks were generally allowed to enlist in the federal Army.
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