What justification is left for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”?

By Joe Katz

The generals huddled in headquarters are almost always the last to know when the battle is over. Long after the soldiers in the field have given up hope, their commanders are still plotting and planning, refusing to acknowledge that they simply do not have the weapons left to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. When they finally accept reality, the civilian world can rest assured that their cause is truly lost.

Last week, two prominent Clinton-era military figures stood before a national audience and declared that a war for our hearts and minds was at its end. Retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen publicly abandoned support for the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy toward gays in the armed forces. Both men argued that the country has changed over the last decade and a half, and that excluding eager volunteers on the basis of sexual orientation no longer benefits “unit cohesion.” U.S. Representative Marty Meehan promptly responded by announcing that he would lead a campaign in Congress to remove the relevant statute from the books. In dangerous times, it is of paramount importance that his colleagues, the President, and the active-duty military hierarchy wave the same white flag of surrender. Any guiding principle that eliminates those willing and able to serve because of bigotry and fear is worse than un-American: it’s unproductive.

The story of the United States is the story of our slow but steady progress toward complete meritocracy, and our armed forces have long stood at the forefront of the waves of change. Those charged with the deadly serious task of assuring our safety against foreign enemies have usually been more reluctant than the rest of society to turn away anyone qualified and prepared to join their ranks. Immigrants and the poor have used military service to assimilate and climb the social ladder since the earliest days of the Revolution, and in war after war served with distinction. In 1948, President Truman rewarded the brave sacrifices of blacks and women in World War II by signing executive orders that integrated them into the regular army. By the time the service academies went coed in 1976, it was a well established principle that anyone who could be effective as a soldier should be allowed to pursue that chance.

This history suggests that the only reason the military would deny equal opportunity based on mere quirks of identity would be that those quirks actually affected someone’s ability to serve, and that is in fact the philosophy behind the discrimination inherent in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Supporters argued that open homosexuality would cause dissension and disarray in the ranks because of the homophobic attitudes of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. This is a legitimate argument if true. Our young men and women are putting their lives in each other’s hands, and would surely be disinclined to take risks if they felt for whatever reason that those hands were untrustworthy.

The problem with the current policy is that this contention is ludicrous. As far back as 1957, the Navy’s Crittenden Report found no practical benefit in excluding homosexuals from military service, and a 1988 Pentagon study came to the same conclusion. Shalikashvili’s opinion piece in the The New York Times cited a recent Zogby poll of more than 500 veterans of the Afghanistani and Iraqi conflict in which 75 percent of those sampled described themselves as comfortable serving with gays. Almost a quarter of the same group said they knew of a gay member in their very own unit, with two-thirds claiming that this situation had no effect on “personal or unit morale.” In Britain and Israel, two of the many nations that already allow open homosexuals to enlist, little impact has been imported. Shalikashvili and Cohen are just the most recent to realize that you don’t have to be straight to shoot straight.

We are at an unprecedented low in recruiting levels for the military, and winnowing the volunteer pool by any criteria other than battle-worthiness has obvious and serious repercussions. Between 1994 and 2005, 11,082 servicemen and women were dismissed from the armed forces under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” More than 3,000 of those discharges took place after January 1, 2002. Even if unit cohesion was somewhat affected by the presence of the openly gay, the value of having two more brigades available to hold down the fort in Baghdad or search the countryside for Osama in Kandahar would surely offset those disadvantages it. Both officials highlighted the simple truth that our top priority is to recruit every man and woman we can get as we resist two simultaneous guerilla uprisings. Cold, hard numbers clearly indicate that discouraging openly gay men or women from joining does not serve that priority.

There is no need for an extensive moral condemnation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Its abuses and contribution to an oppressive atmosphere in the four branches and in the nation are well documented. But those who favor this policy have always emphasized practicalities over ethics. In Shalikashvili and Cohen, two of the men who sold that bill of goods to the nation are admitting that the statute is not the pragmatic nod to reality they once believed it to be. No one can fight once they’re out of ammunition. After almost 14 years, it’s time for our leadership to begin making their peace with gays in the military.