Did Gen. Sheehan Really “Climb Down” From Blaming Gay Soldiers for the Srebrenica Massacre?

That’s what some European news outlets are reporting. That “climb down” comes in the wake of outrage over Gen. John Sheehan’s testimony in support of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before the Senate Armed Services Committee in which he blamed the presence of gay Dutch soldiers for the 1995 massacre of more than 8000 Muslim men and boys. Sheehan claimed that this is what the Dutch chief-of-staff General Henk van den Breemen of the Royal Dutch Marine Corps had told him.

Members of the Dutch military swiftly and vigorously challenged Sheehan’s remarks. The Dutch defense minister, Eimert van Middelkoop, called Shehan’s comments were, “scandalous and unbefitting a soldier,” and the Prime Minister denounced him as “irresponsible.”

Sheehan has climbed down somewhat from his accusation in a letter sent yesterday to the now retired Gen. van den Breemen, in which Sheehan wrote that “the failure on the ground in Srebrenica was in now way the fault of the individual soldiers.” A copy of the letter which has been provided to BTB and other outlets reads:

Gereral Henk van den Breemen
Royal Dutch Marine Corps (Ret.)
[personal address redacted]
Netherlands
29 March 2010

Dear Henk,

Thank you for our much appreciated conversations of the past week. During the mid-1990s, you and I discussed a broad range of issues and policies that reflected the social, political and financial pressures under which NATO Alliance members struggled. I am sorry that my recent public recollection of those discussions of 15 years ago inaccurately reflected your thinking on some specific social issues in the military. It is also regrettable that I allowed you to be pulled into a public debate. As a fellow Marine, I have the deepest respect for you personally and professionally. NATO and the Netherlands were well served by your leadership.

To be clear, the failure on the ground in Srebrenica was in no way the fault of the individual soldiers. The corporals and sergeants executed their orders based on the priorities of the political authorities. Unfortunately, the rules of engagement were developed by a political system with conflicting priorities and an ambivalent understanding of how to use the military. As we know, the consequences of those compromises were devastating.

I wish you the very best during this Easter season.

John J.Sheehan
General U.S.Marine Corps (Ret.)

This is a climbdown from Sheehan’s placing blame on individual gay soldiers in Srebrenica, but it is not a complete disavowal of Sheehan’s position. In this letter, he now shifts his blame to “a political system with conflicting priorities and an ambivalent understanding of how to use the military.” This echoes accusations hurled by opponents to DADT that allowing soldiers to serve with honesty and integrity — two core values of all branches of the armed services — somehow represents a political meddling in the conduct of military affairs. (I would also hasten to add that civilian control of the military is also a core value insisted upon by our founding fathers and enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.) So while media outlets and DADT repeal advocates may celebrate over this climb-down, I have a feeling that Sheehan’s position hasn’t changed one bit.


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