Gays in the Military – Rethinking Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
John Shalikashvili, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the Clinton Administration’s introduction of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gays in the military, believes it may be time for rethinking our policy. Not only do the current difficulties in recruiting and retaining personnel make turning away qualified candidates harder to justify, he believes there is strong evidence that the culture has changed enough to allow openly gay soldiers to serve without disrupting unit cohesion.
Last year I held a number of meetings with gay soldiers and marines, including some with combat experience in Iraq, and an openly gay senior sailor who was serving effectively as a member of a nuclear submarine crew. These conversations showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers.
This perception is supported by a new Zogby poll of more than 500 service members returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, three quarters of whom said they were comfortable interacting with gay people. And 24 foreign nations, including Israel, Britain and other allies in the fight against terrorism, let gays serve openly, with none reporting morale or recruitment problems.
The general public is quickly coming to accept homosexuality, probably owing largely to Hollywood’s positive portrayals of gay characters and the increasing number of public figures (again, mostly entertainers) who are “out.” The military is naturally making this adaptation, too, although its macho culture will lag behind. It took years for white soldiers to accept blacks as equals and decades for that to happen with women. Homosexuality has taken longer for a variety of reasons.
Shalikashvili is right to place the emphasis on practicality rather than “fairness.” The life-and-death nature of combat requires that military effectiveness take precedence over social considerations. After all, we allow the military to discriminate on height, strength, obesity and other factors for which most industries would be hauled into court. Indeed, many occupational specialties are still closed to women generically, regardless of the abilities of any specific woman to perform the task.
Interestingly, Shalikashvili advises a go-slow approach:
But if America is ready for a military policy of nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation, the timing of the change should be carefully considered. As the 110th Congress opens for business, some of its most urgent priorities, like developing a more effective strategy in Iraq, share widespread support that spans political affiliations. Addressing such issues could help heal the divisions that cleave our country. Fighting early in this Congress to lift the ban on openly gay service members is not likely to add to that healing, and it risks alienating people whose support is needed to get this country on the right track.
By taking a measured, prudent approach to change, political and military leaders can focus on solving the nation’s most pressing problems while remaining genuinely open to the eventual and inevitable lifting of the ban. When that day comes, gay men and lesbians will no longer have to conceal who they are, and the military will no longer need to sacrifice those whose service it cannot afford to lose.
He’s almost certainly right on the divisiveness that this fight will engender and that there are other priorities that could and therefore should be addressed more quickly. If, however, the esprit issue is no longer there, this is a policy that needs to be changed sooner rather than later. Discrimination on the basis of military necessity is justifiable; discrimination on the basis of political expediency is not.