The Embarrassment of the Civilian Policy, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

The debate over the Congressional policy, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” has taken center stage when it comes to current discussions regarding the military.  We can debate whether or not this is the topic that should be such a lightening rod of discussion or whether it is other pressing matters, such as a continued drawdown in Iraq, the ambitious offensive in Afghanistan, or the writing on the wall that is Pakistan.  But in any event, the debate is here to stay and it remains to be seen whether the policy will die a slow death due to unenforcement or whether the President will actually take the case before Congress.

It must first be unequivocally stated that the U.S. military is by far the most accomplished organization, perhaps in the world, at personnel diversification and integration.  There is likely no other organization that can state that all employees, regardless of gender or race, receive equal pay.  There is not one woman in the U.S. military that makes less than a man, provided she has the same rank and experience.  Blacks and other minorities have held high levels of leadership unparalleled in the civilian world.  It seems an odd juxtaposition to have a man like Colin Powell responsible for our nation’s war strategy at a time when few people of color could be found in charge of a major corporation’s business strategy.  And on a lighter note, no other organization has been able to transition their members onto the metric system. While most Americans rely on preconceived and incorrect notions of what the military is all about, and what military life is like, they would be wise to take note that it is only the military which exemplifies what America is supposed to be.

These facts then beg the question of why America refuses to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. armed forces.  I must admit, as a former Army officer, I worry about the integration and unit cohesion issues that are likely to arise from allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. armed forces.  And try as I might, have not been able to stake a position either way.  It seems unfathomable to me that allowing homosexuals to serve openly in forward operating bases, submarines, and the like would not have some sort of initial adverse impact on the morale and cohesion of the unit.  But are these concerns any greater or any different than those voiced when our nation took steps to allow minorities and women equal status as soldiers? I do not believe that the struggle of homosexuals is comparable to that of say blacks or women in terms of history, discrimination, and the ever so prescient fact that race and gender are definitively immutable characteristics.  But the struggle of homosexuals is a struggle nonetheless and one which implicates the broader American and military values of fair treatment and dealing and support for civil rights.

However, should our Armed Forces be forced into the foray of the debate, or should that all too convenient and Constitutional civilian leadership factor actually make a clear and distinct decision?  And, “forced” is the appropriate term. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is not the military’s policy, it is Congressional policy. The policy passed by a Congress, and signed by a President, both of the Democratic Party.

Senior military leadership has spoken on the issue as Adm. Mike Mullen expressed his disapproval of a policy which, in his words, “forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”  Merrill McPeak, former Air Force Chief of Staff, recently wrote about these issues as a counterargument to the rising animus against the policy. I must say that I was struck by the weak arguments he presented in favor of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and it leads me to the conclusion that the policy is all but dead unless military leadership formulates a cogent response to Adm. Mullen’s compelling testimony.

McPeak’s opposition to repeal of the policy is based on four main ideas; that the costs of separating homosexual soldiers is miniscule compared to the amount of money spent on recruitment and training in general, that many people from all walks of life are banned from military service and that a prohibition on homosexuality should not rise to a civil rights issue, that President Truman’s executive order integrating the military did little until the services were ready to move forward, and that personal performance does not matter in combat.

McPeak’s most untenable positions seem to be in his characterization of the policy as outside the scope of civil rights issues.  It only becomes untenable due to McPeak’s hopelessly illegal proposition that the military is unlike other jobs, that it is a calling, and therefore employment discrimination laws do not apply.  McPeak is correct in this feeling that military service is a calling and one of the most honorable professions.  However, we as country do not allow society to tag public occupations as “off-limits” and immune to the law because its members feel that it is special.  Under McPeak’s analysis we would be able to prevent homosexuals from serving as EMTs, police, and fire personnel because these jobs many times require one to risk his or her life, and surely members of these occupations feel led to a cause bigger than themselves.  McPeak concludes this point by erroneously comparing homosexuality with being too fat or too thin, disabled, or not holding sufficient education with which to serve your country.

Next, McPeak gives short shrift to President Truman’s executive order calling for integration of the armed forces.  McPeak states that the order was not enough for the armed forces to do the right thing and that it was only after the leaders of “each service committed their institutions did we make real progress.”  The power of McPeak’s statement here is amazing.  The basic argument is that the President of the United States gave an order and the military then decided to implement the President’s order on their own time.  It logically follows that if President Obama gave that order today with regard to homosexuals, the service chiefs might do the same.  From McPeak’s point of view the President is not actually the Commander-in-Chief but the Requestor-in-Chief?

McPeak’s final argument rests on the idea that “… It would be a serious mistake to imagine that personal performance is what matters in combat.”  According to McPeak, it is unit cohesion that stands to suffer most from homosexuals serving openly in the armed forces.  Unit cohesion is most likely the strongest argument out there for keeping the policy but McPeak’s arguments damage it beyond comprehension.  McPeak says that in serving as a “fighter pilot, paratrooper, or submariner one joins a self-contained, resolutely idealistic society, largely unnoticed and uncorrupted by the world at large.”

The idea that homosexuals will corrupt military society will not hold weight in today’s debate.  McPeak’s argument sounds less like a concern for unit solidarity and more of the locker room concern that homosexuals just shouldn’t be around when men are working.

There are legitimate concerns regarding unit cohesion and the ability of the military to withstand homosexual integration in the midst of two wars.  However, those on the side of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell must craft better arguments than those brought forth by McPeak.  As a matter of fact, it is likely that had more time been spent on the actual reasons for the policy both substantively and anecdotally the debate may not be at the center of military conversation today.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” represents civilian control of the military at its worst.  The warrior class of this country depends on real and concrete rules in order to function day to day and defend the homeland.  However, in their attempt to lead, civilians have given that warrior class an albatross that is neither clear nor widely enforceable.  The policy is so inept that both sides of the issue have a tough time formulating legitimate reasons for its repeal or sustainment.  It is quite simply embarrassing.

Those who support this policy have a small window of opportunity with which to shore up support, and those against the policy face quite a task in working with all vested parties to form a workable and intelligent rule.   Let’s get it together guys.


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