Gen. John Sheehan, the former NATO commander, told a Senate committee this month that part of the blame for one of the last half-century’s most famous atrocities — the massacre at Srebrenica during the Bosnian war — rested on gays in the Dutch military.
Homosexuals in the Dutch military had depleted the forces’ morale, he argued to the senators, and made them “ill-equipped to go to war.” And that was in part why they failed to prevent Bosnian Serbs from massacring more than 8,000 civilians in the former haven of Srebrenica in July 1995.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) seemed incredulous at the testimony. “Did the Dutch leaders tell you it was because there were gay soldiers there?” he asked.
“Yes,” Sheehan said. “They included that as part of the problem.” He even claimed that the former Dutch commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force had told him this was true.
As a former member of the Dutch parliament and a spokesman for the parliamentary investigation into the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, I know the history that the retired U.S. Marine Corps general tried to rewrite, and I was astonished by his homophobic concoctions.
During two weeks of public hearings on the massacre, Dutch parliamentarians heard many expert witnesses. Not one hinted at sexual orientation as a relevant factor. Srebrenica was no moment of pride for the Dutch military. But soldiers’ sexuality had nothing to do with the failure to protect.
The Dutch parliamentary investigation placed blame squarely on Ratko Mladic for the mass killings of Muslim men and boys. Mladic was the Bosnian Serb military commander during the war in Bosnia. A fugitive, he has been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the massacre after Srebrenica fell. It was arguably the worst atrocity on European soil since the Holocaust.
But Sheehan uttered no word about Mladic and expressed no outrage that he is still at large while thousands of men and boys have been consigned to mass graves. Instead, he put the blame on the sexuality of Dutch troops.
After the general’s statement, the Dutch prime minister and the ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs issued statements of disbelief and shock. Former Dutch Defense chief of staff Gen. Henk Van den Breemen, who was supposedly Sheehan’s source, dismissed his testimony as utter nonsense.
Sheehan’s remarks insult not only the Dutch military but lesbians and gays around the world — men and women perfectly capable of defending themselves, their comrades and their countries.
Since 1974, the Dutch military has recruited soldiers based on their physical and mental capability, irrespective of race, sexual orientation or religious belief. The Dutch army was the first in the world to open its military formally to gays and lesbians. Now it holds this policy in common with many countries, including Britain, Canada, Israel, South Africa, Italy, Spain, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Australia.
As a member of the Dutch parliament’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense, I visited Dutch troops in Afghanistan in 2004. In Kabul, the Dutch worked closely with American forces. Not one American commander had a word of criticism for their Dutch comrades because some were gay or lesbian. They were jointly fulfilling a U.N. mandate to combat the Taliban. On the ground, as everyone knows, only performance counts.
Since 2006, the Dutch have been the lead nation in the NATO strategy for the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan, and more than 20 Dutch soldiers have died in Afghanistan. Disagreement over a plan to pull out of Afghanistan at the end of this year led to the collapse of the Dutch government.
The Dutch army is no less competent because it respects nondiscrimination and equality, principles dear to the American public.
Sheehan seems to think Congress will be distracted from the need to end “don’t ask, don’t tell” by hearing outrageous lies about Dutch soldiers and one of the worst war crimes in recent history. Let’s hope he is wrong.
His surreal testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee showed that the die-hard defenders of the discredited policy have run out of ammunition. It is past time for a policy founded on fantasy and fear to go.
Leonard Matlovich, whose Air Force service in Vietnam earned him a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, was later discharged for his homosexuality. After his death in 1988, he was buried in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery, where his gravestone reads: “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
Sheehan’s false testimony shows the hypocrisy of such a policy. The U.S. military should focus on its real challenges. Let “don’t ask, don’t tell” die.
Boris Dittrich is advocacy director in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights program at Human Rights Watch.
Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times