SANTA BARBARA, CA, – Charles Moskos, the Northwestern University military sociologist who was renowned by scholars and popular with students, died on May 31 of prostate cancer at the age of 74. Moskos taught for over four decades at Northwestern, where he drew up to 600 students to his early morning lectures in sociology. He rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s as an expert on racial integration in the military, and became something of a household name in the 1990s when he helped craft the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military.
Until the end of his life, Moskos was always willing to engage his colleagues in discussions of ideas, and he held steadfastly to his beliefs even when they were unpopular. According to Palm Center Director Aaron Belkin, “Charlie consistently defended the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, but was also concerned about the effect it was having on gay and lesbian troops.” Scholars and activists on all sides of this issue were impressed over the years with Moskos’s ability to defend and critique the policy. In 2000, for instance, he called the effects of the policy “insidious” because gays and lesbians have sometimes been cowed into tolerating harassment because they were fearful that reporting it could bring them unwanted scrutiny. Belkin added that, “Moskos operated in a tradition of practical sociology that affected people’s lives in tangible ways. His passion, intellect and good nature will be sorely missed.”
Palm Center Senior Research Fellow Nathaniel Frank interviewed Moskos numerous times and features about him prominently in his upcoming book on gays in the military, “Unfriendly Fire.” He published a review of Moskos’s contribution to the gays-in-the-military debate which can be found here. Frank said that Moskos was a controversial figure in the world of sociology and among many gays and lesbians for his work supporting the ban on openly gay service. “Charlie was a good-natured, lovable man who cared deeply about his country and its military, and this showed in the work he did in military sociology,” said Frank. “At the same time, on this issue in particular, he struck some as more invested in his role as a broker of ideas than in weighing the full range of evidence to support those ideas.” In 1997, the American Sociological Association gave Moskos an award to honor his role as a public intellectual, and it created a small outcry among his colleagues. Several gay and lesbian groups wrote letters of protest, suggesting the award was driven by Moskos’s media attention rather than his scholarship.
But scholars on all sides of the gay troops issue praised Moskos this month as a people’s scholar, who was dedicated to the practical application of ideas. “Charlie was passionate about learning from people from all walks of life, all levels of society, and across the globe, whether they agreed with his points of view or staunchly opposed them,” said Laura Miller, a scholar at the Rand Corporation who studied with Moskos and continued to work closely with him as a researcher on gays in the military. Miller said that he proposed “don’t ask, don’t tell” as a political compromise once it appeared clear that Democrats lacked the leverage to lift the ban entirely. But she also cited an evolution in his thinking about the topic. “In more recent years,” she said, “he questioned whether that policy’s time has come and gone, as society has moved toward greater acceptance of gays and lesbians and younger generations with more open attitudes fill the ranks of the military.”
David Segal, a professor of sociology at University of Maryland and a friend and colleague of Moskos’s for over four decades, said that, although the two often had policy disagreements, he learned a great deal from Moskos “both about scholarship and about teaching. I spent much of my career following a path blazed by Charlie.” Segal said that his friend was “was passionately committed to the positions he took, but also able to evaluate them in the light of data, and to prioritize them. Thus, when he became convinced that having gays in the military would not undermine unit cohesion, he dropped that argument, and argued instead for exclusion on the basis of privacy rights.”
When Moskos first stopped teaching due to health reasons, he told the Northwestern newspaper that “It’s a real bummer because there won’t be students to laugh at my jokes.” When he fully retired, less than two weeks before he died, he said “It’s hard to think of a better life, having taught since 1966 at a great university like Northwestern with such super students, including my own son. It’s almost the perfect life to be a professor at Northwestern.”