A couple of days ago, a member of the Chicago Tribune editorial board re-ignited the debate over gays in the military, asking the JCS Chairman, General Peter Pace about his thoughts on the issue, and the military's current "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.
As you might expect from a Marine, General Pace responded forthrightly, saying that while he supports the current policy, he personally believes that homosexuality is wrong. "I do not believe the United States is well served by a policy that says it is OK to be immoral in any way," Pace told the Tribune, noting that such behavior can undermine order and discipline within the ranks. General Pace likened homosexuality to adultery, and said the military should not condone it by allowing gays to serve openly.
Needless to say, the gay community and their friends in Congress are up in arms. John Warner, the Virginia Republican who's been running scared since George Allen's loss last November, said he "respectually but strongly disagrees with the chairman's view." Apparently Mr. Warner is making an early play for the gay vote in Alexandria, Richmond and Hampton Roads when he runs for re-election next year. Some pundits also suggest that Warner might be willing to revisit his position on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which Congressional Democrats are trying to overhaul.
And, of course, the Tribune has its own issues with General Pace, outlined in an editorial that ran today. While acknowledging that Pace is entitled to his own opinion, the Trib feels that the general (unlike the enlightened members of its editorial board) is:
..."Out of step with the evolving sensibilities of U.S. troops and the American people, who are increasingly willing to accept the reality that gay men and women are serving capably and honorably, and that efforts to keep them in the closet hurt the military."
The Tribune follows that assertion with some of the standard arguments supporting an end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." They cite a recent Zogby Poll, which reports that 73% of returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan "have no problem" serving alongside gays and 23% are sure they already have." Unfortunately, Mr. Zogby forgot to ask the logical, follow-up question: Would you be willing to serve with gays if their lifestyle or behavior would be prejudicial to good order and discipline. Having spent over 20 years in uniform, I can safely predict that the response to that question would be much different.
And that bring us to the very core of this difficult issue. Gay rights activists--who tend to be very different in their outlook than homosexuals who actually wear the uniform--strongly believe that gays should be free to pursue their lifestyle throughout the military community. That would mean gay couples in base housing, "partners" as members of the NCO or Officer's Wives Clubs, and among the lowest ranks, openly gay soliders, sailors, airmen and Marines in the cramped quarters of open bay barracks and enlisted dormitories.
If societal attitudes toward gays are changing--and I believe they are--then the local Officer's Wives Club might not have a problem with Col X's new male "partner" joining the organizations. But an openly gay soldier or Marine in the barracks would present a different set of challenges. During my time as a teacher, I learned that teenagers (and particularly male teens, the very group targeted by military recruiters) are among the most homophobic elements of our society.
Injecting openly gay troops into an environment populated (largely) by young men that are struggling with their own identity--and who may have less-than-enlightened views on homosexuality--is a recipie for trouble. With many units rotating to the war zones on a recurring basis, no commander would welcome the added burden of investigating charges of anti-gay behavior among straight personnel, or (on the other side) gay troops filing false complaints to seek retribution against superiors--or fellow soliders--that they simply don't like. Ask any commander about the number of false sexual harrassment complaints they receive, and you'll get some idea of the additional problems that might be created by allowing gays to serve openly.
The Tribune also argues that discharging gays has created huge costs for training replacement personnel--almost $200 million since 1994, according to one government study. That's an average of $15 million a year--veritable chump change in a defense budget that tops $500 billion. Supporters of gays in the ranks also observe that some who are discharged are highly trained and difficult to replace; other reports suggest that some 50 Arabic linguists have, in recent years, been removed from active duty because they're gay, at a time when the military is woefully short of those language skills.
But the paper ignores one of the unspoken truths in these cases. A significant number of discharges for homosexual conduct come at the request of the military member. In some situations, the pain of remaining in the closet, or leading a "double life" is too much to bear. But in other instances, a quick discharge for being gay can put the former service member on the fast-track to a higher-paying civilian job. By simply telling their commander that they are "gay," an enterprising young specialist can exit the military years ahead of schedule, and quickly double, or even triple their pay. For example, "civilian" intelligence agencies no longer prohibit gay employees (nor do defense contractors), but they covet foreign language skills. It would be very interesting to know how many of those Arabic linguists initiated their own discharge, and how many transitioned to higher-paying jobs in the private sector. I would also argue that many of those linguists could have remained on active duty, if they had simply been more discreet, or kept their mouths shut.
As we've written before, the days of "witch hunts" for gays in the military are long since over. Even in the "bad old days" of the Reagan Defense Department, long before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," I knew at least two gay NCOs who served with me in a couple of different Air Force units. One had a partner, and later died of AIDS (reportedly inflicted through a contaminated dental instrument). He served in an organization commanded by a prototypical SAC Colonel, who apparently had no problem with the gay sergeant in his budget office. The reason? That particular NCO was an outstanding performer, as was the senior NCO I met later in my career. He was more careful in revealing his orientation, but it was common knowledge within the unit that he was gay. That senior NCO served on active duty for more than 20 years, won accolades for his work, and as far as I know, his sexuality was never an issue.
That's why 23% of those Zogby respondents believe they've already served alongside a gay soldier, sailor, airman or Marine. Few in the military really care how their comrades spend their off-duty time, as long as that behavior doesn't affect unit performance, or bring discredit upon the organization. The Tribune claims that gays deserve the "same right" as straight personnel to engage in private, consensual sex during their off-duty time, without interference from Uncle Sam. I would argue that gays in the military already have that right--even if it isn't codified by executive order or the UCMJ.