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Retired general links gays in military, Bosnian massacre

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Genocide blamed on gay troops?
  • Dutch force "ill-equipped to go to war" in early '90s, retired U.S. general says
  • He tells Senate panel that led in part to failure to stop Srebrenica killings
  • Dutch leaders linked poor performance to gays in military, he says
  • Senate committee chairman says remarks "way off the mark"

Washington (CNN) -- A retired U.S. general said Thursday that the Dutch policy of allowing openly gay soldiers to serve in its military led, in part, to its failure to halt the massacre of Muslims in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, "nations like Belgium, Luxembourg, the Dutch, et cetera, firmly believed there was no longer a need for an active combat capability in the militaries," John Sheehan, former supreme allied commander - Atlantic, told a Senate hearing on the don't ask, don't tell policy under which gays are not allowed to serve in the U.S. military openly.

"As a result, they declared a peace dividend and made a conscious effort to socialize their military," he said. "That includes the unionization of their militaries. It includes open homosexuality demonstrated in a series of other activities, with a focus on peacekeeping operations, because they did not believe the Germans were going to attack again or the Soviets were coming back.

"That led to a force that was ill-equipped to go to war. The case in point that I'm referring to is when the Dutch were required to defend Srebrenica against the Serbs. The battalion was under-strength, poorly led, and the Serbs came into town, handcuffed the soldiers to the telephone poles, marched the Muslims off and executed them," Sheehan said.

"That was the largest massacre in Europe since World War II."

Asked whether Dutch leaders had told him that the Dutch military's performance was linked to its gay soldiers, he said, "Yes. ... They included that as part of the problem."

He was referring to the incident that began July 11, 1995, when Serb forces overran the United Nations "safe zone" of Srebrenica and systematically executed men and boys while expelling the rest of the Muslim population. In all, 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.

Asked which Dutch officers had told him that the debacle at Srebrenica was in part due to the fact that gay soldiers serve in the Dutch army, Sheehan cited a "Hankman Berman," whom he described as "the chief of staff of the army who was fired by the parliament because they couldn't find anybody else to blame."

A spokeswoman for the Dutch Embassy in Washington said Dutch officials did not know to whom Sheehan was referring.

A former general, Henk van den Breemen, is identified in news reports as having served as Dutch chief of defense staff from 1994-1998. CNN was not able to reach him.

In a statement issued after the hearing, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said, "Srebrenica was an unconscionable massacre, but it's way off the mark to attribute it in any way to the fact that gays can serve openly in the Dutch military, which failed to protect Srebrenica's citizens.

"I know of no historian or commentator who has attributed this massive failure to protect the citizens of Srebrenica to Dutch policy on gays serving openly in their military. The U.S. military serves side by side with the Dutch in Afghanistan without any difficulty whatsoever."

In a written statement, the Dutch ambassador to the U.S., Renee Jones-Bos, said of Sheehan's comments, "I couldn't disagree more.

"I take pride in the fact that lesbians and gays have served openly and with distinction in the Dutch military forces for decades, including in leading operational positions, such as in Afghanistan at the moment," she said.

"The military mission of Dutch U.N. soldiers at Srebrenica has been exhaustively studied and evaluated, nationally and internationally. There is nothing in these reports that suggests any relationship between gays serving in the military and the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims."

Sheehan, who retired from the military in 1997, told the Senate Committee on Armed Services that he opposed a proposal to let gays serve openly in the U.S. military.

The American Psychological Association submitted testimony to the committee that said "scientific research has demonstrated that ending the ban on openly gay people serving in the military is unlikely to reduce military readiness or unit cohesion."

It said the gay ban was suspended during the Gulf War with no apparent detrimental impact on military readiness.

CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr and Tom Watkins contributed to this report.