Since its inception in 1993, the military policy commonly known as ‘don’t ask, don’t tell” has attracted criticism from two sources: those who believe that LGBT soldiers should be permitted to serve openly in the military, and those who believe that homosexuality is fundamentally incompatible with military service for a variety of reasons. Anyone who is not heterosexual should not serve at all, or so it seems. This is not surprising given that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell” emerged as a compromise between Clinton’s own campaign promises and the daunting opposition presented by Republicans in Congress.
The political stage is not much different today. President Obama, like his Democratic predecessor, has promised to open the armed services to all sexual orientations. Republicans, with the semi-puzzling exception of Dick Cheney, are strongly opposed to the policy change. As recently as two years ago, service members opposed repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.” Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has recently said he personally opposes the policy which, by some accounts, apparently transformed him from an able-minded military officer under President Bush into a stooge responding purely to political pressure under Obama.
Thus far, the main arguments in support of retaining ‘don’t ask, don’t tell” seem to be centered around the issue of unit cohesion and trust that is, if the average soldier cannot trust the guy behind him to have his back, soldiers cannot fight as a cohesive unit. This is a problem in an environment that is literally life or death.
Obviously, civilians may not be acquainted with the hardships of military life and the culture of the armed forces certainly not from a service member’s perspective. This knowledge gap should be taken into account when discussing this policy.
With that said, a strong argument can still be made for repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.” First of all, the armed services have been down this road already. General Omar Bradley cautioned President Truman against the ‘social experiment” of opening the armed services to all races in 1948. And, despite the prohibition against women in combat roles, they have been wounded, captured and killed in action since at least World War II.
A standard as vague as someone’s ‘trustworthiness” can be used to justify keeping the armed services closed to anyone, on the basis of anything not simply sex, race, or sexual orientation. Furthermore, data from foreign militaries and from American fire and police departments shows that openly LGBT members have not affected the cohesion or effectiveness of their units.
Another practical argument in favor of repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell” is that it is impossible to implement perfectly. A policy that requires soldiers to keep part of their lives a secret from fellow soldiers might well cost them the trust that the policy intends to protect in the first place. Then there is the fact that, as with Timothy R. McVeigh not the Oklahoma City bomber, but the first person to win a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell” lawsuit LGBT soldiers will be outed, sometimes by fellow soldiers, sometimes by the armed services themselves. Even barring malicious intent, it would still be impossible to suppress soldiers’ curiosity about the sexual orientation of the men and women in their units. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell” is fundamentally flawed because it permits the Army to discharge soldiers who have not outed themselves.
All of this leaves us with a flawed policy that must be changed. It is problematic to compound compromise with compromise, but should an instantaneous repeal prove counter-productive, the best solution may be to fully integrate non-combat units first, similar to current policy for integrating women, and then roll it back across the whole body of the armed services. This policy is in no way ideal, but combined with a speedy rollback, perhaps it would be most effective in addressing the complexity of the issue.
At any rate, the course forward is clear ‘don’t ask, don’t tell” already recognized the right of LGBT soldiers to serve. Now we must recognize their right to serve openly with their brothers and sisters in arms. The military already successfully opened its arms to people of all races over 60 years ago, before the whole of the United States had done so.
It is high time that the military shows, as it did then, that when it comes to serving your country, what matters is how you prove yourself on the battlefield.
Morales is a member of
the class of 2011.