Don’t Ask, Don’t Care

On November 30th, the Pentagon delivered its report on the implications of a repeal of the military policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT). The report conducted a thorough survey of military personnel to gauge the sentiment of active duty soldiers. It also examined the historical examples of the integration of blacks and women into the military, as well as the integration of openly serving gays in the armed services of other countries and of civilian agencies in the Unites States.

In short, the report concluded that the repeal of DADT would not cause major disruptions to the military and that gay soldiers should be allowed to serve openly in the military.

Back in May, the House of Representatives added a provision to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to repeal DADT and passed the bill. The Senate added a similar provision to its version of the NDAA but has yet to vote on the bill. I suppose Harry Reid was waiting for the Pentagon’s report to come out before bringing a vote to the floor. (Either that or he was too busy not addressing 2011 tax rates and passing bills to crush small farmers.) It seems reasonable to wait for the report, but the question now is will the Senate have time to vote on the bill before the new Senate takes charge, which would presumably present problems for the DADT provision. Not if John McCain has his way. He has vowed to filibuster the bill.

[As a side note, why does the Congress always feel compelled to bundle legislation into one all-encompassing bill? Wouldn’t it make sense to simply have a separate bill to repeal DADT? It could be one sentence long; “This bill hereby repeals DADT.” Congress could have an up or down vote, and we’d know exactly where each member stands. But that’s another topic.]

In the past, McCain has said he would respect the findings of the Pentagon regarding DADT. Now, he has changed his tune, stating that it would be dangerous to repeal DADT during war-time. Considering McCain wants to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan forever if needed, it appears there may never be a good time to repeal DADT.

Why is this such a big deal anyway? The current policy seems to be working fine; why should we mess with it? Well, it is a big deal because it’s a chance to wipe out one of the last vestiges of government sponsored discrimination in America. This country was founded on the principle that all [people] are created equal. Gay and lesbian soldiers risk their lives to serve our country and protect our freedoms. They deserve our admiration and respect. Instead, our armed forces treat them as if they are less than human.

To be clear, I haven’t served in the military and don’t intend to any time soon. While I respect and support the people who choose to join the military, I disagree philosophically with our foreign policy of policing the world and invading other countries for preemptive wars. I also believe we have more than enough soldiers to take out a few hundred terrorists and protect our borders. (Of course if American soil is invaded by another country or if a foreign government nukes a U.S. city, I and millions of other Americans would do whatever is necessary to protect our country.)

But a lack of military experience does not preclude anyone from making value judgements on the constitutionality and morality of military policy. The very fact that our Commander-in-Chief is not required to have military experience bears this out. On the flip side, the fact that John McCain served in the Navy, while admirable, does not automatically qualify him as an expert on military policy. It certainly doesn’t give him more credibility than the military officers who spent nine months studying the issue.

Findings of the Pentagon Report

Let’s examine the results of the study and the arguments against repealing DADT. Part of the study surveyed active duty military to asses their sentiment on DADT. It should be noted that the opinions of the soldiers, while interesting to understand, should not guide military policy. As Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, pointed out:

“I can’t think of a single precedent in American history of doing a referendum of the American armed forces on a policy issue. Are you going to ask them if they want 15-month tours? Are you going to ask them if they want to be part of the surge in Iraq? That’s not the way our civilian-led military has ever worked in our entire history. The ‘should’ question is to be decided by the Congress or the courts, as far as I’m concerned.”

However, it is useful to look at the results of the soldier opinion poll because it shatters the common arguments given to preserve DADT which claim that repealing DADT would be very disruptive to the military. According to the survey, “When asked [hypothetically] about how having a Service member in their immediate unit who said he or she is gay would affect the unit’s ability to ‘work together to get the job done,’ 70% of Service members predicted it would have a positive, mixed, or no effect. When asked about the actual experience of serving in a unit with a co-worker who they believed was gay or lesbian, 92% stated that the unit’s “ability to work together” was “very
good,” “good,” or “neither good nor poor.” It’s clear that the perception of the problem is worse than the actual problem.

In general, most Service members didn’t really care that much. One anecdote from the Pentagon  report stated, “As one special operations force warfighter told us, ‘We have a gay guy [in the unit]. He’s big, he’s mean, and he kills lots of bad guys. No one cared that he was gay.’”

The experiences of the militaries of other countries and our American civilian forces such as police, firefighters, and FBI have demonstrated that allowing gays to serve openly has not affected them negatively.

Of our NATO partners, 35 have openly gay men and women serving without incident. These include Albania, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland ,France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Nether lands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, United Kingdom. Only 7 countries exclude gays or open service including Bulgaria, Jordan, Poland, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United States.

This is not to argue that we should allow gays to serve openly because “everybody else is doing it.” It is simply to say that the experiences of these other countries has shown the allowing gays to serve does not negatively affect the military. When Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia changed their policies to allow gay service members resistance among their troops was higher than it is for American troops today. So what happened when those governments forced integration on their soldiers? It was met with a giant, “Oh. That wasn’t so bad.” There was no decrease in troop enrollment, there was no change in “unit cohesion and combat effectiveness.” And gay soldiers didn’t jump out of the closet in droves.

Instead of discriminating against gays, these governments instituted rules of conduct that applied to all service members regardless of gender or sexual orientation. For example, they maintained guidelines regarding social interactions between soldiers on duty but did not distinguish between gay and straight behavior.

While the report unequivocally concluded that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military, it was a bit squishy on the issue of benefits for the partners of gay service members. This will need to be reconciled with civil union and marriage laws.

Arguments against repeal of DADT

Most of the arguments against allowing gays to serve openly are the same tired and discredited arguments that were used to oppose integration of black soldiers or women. In the late 1940s and early 50s it’s estimated that resistance to the integration of blacks in the military was close to 90%. Opponents argued that integrating black soldiers would kill morale, would be extremely disruptive and would be devastating to our forces during a time of war. However, by the time the Korean war ended in 1953, 95% of the military was integrated with minimal problems. Today, the idea of treating black soldiers differently seems inconceivable. As the Pentagon report notes, the integration of blacks in the military happened before blacks received equal treatment in many parts of general society which is not the case with homosexuals.

Those opposed to women in the military said that it would introduce sexual issues and that women couldn’t handle the rigors of war. In 1948 only 2% of active duty personnel were women and they were limited in the roles they could perform. Today 14% of personnel are women and they serve in 92% of occupational specialties.

While the experiences with blacks and women in the military systematically destroy the majority of arguments for maintaining DADT, there are two arguments I would like to address that are distinctly pertinent to gays and on the surface appear to have some credibility.

The first is that homosexuality is seen by many with strong religious views to be unnatural or an “abomination.” Some deeply religious people may be sincere in this view, but my guess is that the majority of people who cite religious objections are just creeped out by the thought of sharing living quarters with a gay person. Even if people are sincere in their belief that homosexuality is a sin, it’s unclear why this means they can’t fight in the same army. If this really is a deal breaker for certain religious individuals, they are free to not enlist in our volunteer army or request release or transfer on religious grounds.

While people’s religious objections are a serious concern, we can’t neglect the inalienable civil rights of a group of people to placate the people with religious based opinions. If a private church wants to disallow homosexuals from joining that is well within their rights. But all people are entitled to equal treatment under the law in the public sphere. Part of the justification many people give for occupying Muslim countries is their disregard for the rights of women and their intolerance of other religious views. The irony is inescapable.

The second is a safety issue regarding blood transfusions in the field. Some argue that allowing gays to serve openly will cause a health risk because they have higher incidences of blood transmittable diseases, particularly HIV. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Homosexuals are currently serving, and keeping their sexuality a secret makes it more difficult to regulate the blood supply and treatment in the field. Since gay service members need to hide their sexuality, more STDs go undiagnosed and untreated.

What would happen if DADT were repealed?

The experience of other countries shows us that not much would really change on the surface if we repealed DADT. The thousands of gay soldiers currently serving wouldn’t start wearing pink cammo and skipping through marching exercises. It’s unlikely that large numbers of soldiers would leave the military, but some of the 14,000 troops who were dismissed since DADT was enacted would return. The new policy would require some adjustments and training, but nothing that can’t be handled with the proper leadership as recommended by the Pentagon’s report.

Repealing DADT would have some tremendously positive fundamental effects. The very act of the military treating gays differently reinforces bigoted views that people who are gay are somehow not equal. It implies that discrimination is acceptable. Repealing DADT would remove the stigma of associating with gay people. Soldiers who felt weird about serving with gays would just have to get over it. Fighting and bleeding side by side with gay soldiers would allow straight soldiers to see them for what they are- people. People with hopes and fears and a love for their country so deep that they are willing to risk their lives to protect all of our rights.

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