Forget the Bravado: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a Leadership Issue

I respect General McPeak. He retired before I entered the Marine Corps in 1996, so I didn’t have the privilege of flying or fighting with him. His 37 years of service, and substantial list of accomplishments, however, speak for themselves.

Although I respect General McPeak, I disagree with him. His recent New York Times Op-Ed, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t change,” offers a perspective on the 1993 formulation and implementation of the Don’t ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy, and the reasons why it should not be repealed. His argument is that not much has changed in the 17 years since DADT’s implementation, and that the arguments being made for its repeal are imprudent, especially during a time of war.

I will be the first to acknowledge that we are at war, and that everything we do should first aim to support the infantryman on the front lines. Our military is already stretched thin and overworked, and we should be loath to burden our troops with unnecessary tasks. But General McPeak is wrong. Things have changed, and repealing DADT won’t negatively affect unit performance. The repeal of DADT will be virtually seamless and, if anything, have a positive effect on unit performance by enabling military leadership and removing a hypocritical policy. The reality is that the current generation of soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors have grown up in a different world, and General McPeak’s concerns overstate the complications of repealing DADT, and don’t reflect the attitudes of the members of the military that I served with.

How are things different?

First – Being around gay people used to be a big deal. It isn’t anymore. I served with people that I suspected of being gay. It didn’t bother me, and it wouldn’t have bothered me any more or less if those service members were allowed to serve openly. The reason is that a person’s sexual orientation doesn’t determine their professional ability – so why should I care who they date when they are off duty?

Actually, I do care – from a leadership point of view. I care because I was taught from day one of officer training to take care of my Marines, and that I could only take care of them if I knew them. I was taught that I should know their parent’s names, their hometown, their hobbies…..even know their favorite color. But how can I know them if I am prohibited from asking certain questions? And how can I remain fully aware of my unit’s capabilities and limitations if certain members of my unit are forbidden from keeping me fully informed? This may not easily translate to those who have never served in the military, but a Marine’s personal life is his/her leader’s business. Most Marine units have to be ready to deploy at a moments notice – and personal problems affect the ability of a unit to deploy. If a Marine has a personal issue, to include a relationship issue, leaders should know about it. Only then can leaders make decisions based on an accurate understanding of unit capabilities.

General McPeak suggests that we are not asking gay service men and women to lie. But if our leadership is truly taking care of their troops, and thereby truly optimizing unit performance by asking these questions – their troops are lying to them. This is especially problematic in a culture that values integrity and honesty so deeply. It is problematic for the gays and lesbians who do the lying, and hypocritical of military leadership to emphasize the necessities of honesty, but then require an exception.

Second – There will be “adjustments” that come with the repeal of DADT, but the changes will be much less dramatic than you might think. Concerns often include bathroom and shower arrangements, general living arrangements, and the impact of potential relationships within units. Many of these concerns garner nothing more than a dismissive chuckle from most of the Marines I served with. This is primarily because most of us know at least one gay or lesbian outside the service, and the rumors we heard about gays and lesbians in 8th grade were dispelled long ago.

It’s also because the integration of women into “non-combat” units during the last several wars proves that men and women can serve in the same unit professionally, and won’t necessarily disrupt unit performance. Women are still not allowed to serve in infantry units, but since the current wars don’t have traditional “rear areas,” our female service members have been integrated into de-facto front-line units. The nearly 100 female combat deaths in Iraq attest to this, and the evidence that female integration has not destroyed unit cohesion in Iraq is evidenced by the current state of our mission there.

The reality is that gays and lesbians will integrate into everyday military life easily; gays will be required to comply with the same professional standards by which we expect males and females to conduct themselves when serving together.

Will some gay servicemen make unwanted advances on other servicemen while on the job? Probably. But some straight servicemen make unwanted advances on servicewomen in our present system, and they often pay a severe price. From what I’ve seen, sexual harassment is treated sternly within the military, and it won’t be tolerated from gays or lesbians either. More than likely, the vast majority of service men and women will conduct themselves professionally. The ones that don’t will be dealt with using already established procedures. Sexual harassment is sexual harassment; a professional is a professional.

Additionally, I agree that the military is not like any other job. It is not a right to serve in the military. And yes, the military discriminates against all sorts of people for being too fat or too thin, too tall or too short etc. But there are reasons for that discrimination that don’t apply to this debate. Being too fat could preclude an individual from contributing his or her fair share to the unit, for example. But that deficiency, and its remedy, is entirely the responsibility of the individual. Being gay, on the other hand, doesn’t preclude anyone from doing anything unless the prejudice of others obstructs them.

Third – General McPeak suggests that unit cohesion might suffer if gays are allowed to serve openly, which would lead to a degradation of a unit’s combat capability. I must admit that prior to serving in combat I might have believed this argument. It seems plausible that “men need to be men” on the field of battle, and that gay men serving openly would somehow betray the sacred trust that only those who have seen combat know. I have served in combat, and have a different perspective.

I was a pilot for most of my career. Two of my three combat deployments were flying tours; one was a ground tour. My ground tour was spent in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2005/06 as a forward air controller with an infantry unit. During this tour I participated in more than 100 gun battles in which the enemy attacked us with coordinated IED’s, rocket propelled grenades, machine guns and mortars. I have no doubt that the boys that hit the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima saw worse than I did, but I also feel confident that I know combat well enough to offer an opinion.

What I know convinces me that when people talk of unit cohesion in reference to DADT it is usually for bravado and effect – it is usually not based in reality. I’ll try to avoid the bravado by simply giving my point view:

I formed what I thought was a close bond with my unit before we saw combat, but that bond – the one formed before combat – turned out to be almost completely irrelevant compared to the bond formed in combat. That’s because when the shooting started I didn’t care who had my back, I just cared that they did. If they were pointing their rifle in the right direction, and we were trying to kill the same enemy – that was all the “cohesion” I needed. This is not to say that I didn’t form bonds with the Marines I served with – I certainly did. But the bonds were not born out of an overdrawn machismo, or because we thought we should – but because we fought for our lives together. For me at least, General McPeak has confused the necessity of cohesion with the cause.

This thought is akin to the idea that soldiers don’t care about politics when the shooting starts. For me that was certainly true. I consider myself invested in politics. I care about my country. When I was in Iraq I wanted above all things to return with honor. But when the shooting started, the politics predictably melted away – it was just us against them. If one of “us” happened to be gay – it just wouldn’t have mattered to me.

In conclusion, General McPeak rightly points out that overall unit effectiveness must continue to be our primary concern. I care about civil rights, too, but I agree with the General that individual rights are secondary to unit effectiveness, and to the mission. My argument is not that we should repeal DADT for the sake of taking care of individuals for their own sake, but because leaders would actually be better off with the boundaries removed, and because times have changed. I don’t doubt that there was a time when gays serving openly would have degraded unit cohesion and performance more than was worth the benefit. That time has passed. Young service men and women don’t judge gays and lesbians the way our parents do. They are not only ready to have gays and lesbians serve openly – they think it’s a little silly that the previous generation is still in such a heated debate about whether or not they should.

Photo credit: kjd

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One thought on “Forget the Bravado: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a Leadership Issue

  1. Amber says:

    Great article, very well written and great to have the perspective of someone truly qualified to address this issue as it applies to combat readiness.

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