Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Retired Army General John Shalikashvili, who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bill Clinton, is offering some "second thoughts" on gays in the military, via an op-ed in Tuesday's edition of The New York Times.

After supporting Clinton's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy (which went into effect during his watch at the Pentagon), General Shalikashvili believes its time to end the current prohibitions on openly gay men and lesbians serving in the military. In outlining his revised position, Shalikashvili cites the usual rationale for allowing admitted homosexuals to serve in the armed forces, noting changes in public opinion over the past decade, and the fact that other countries allow gays and lesbians to join their militaries.

But the general's arguments only go so far in justifying the proposed policy change. He cites a recent Zogby poll of 500 service members who recently returned from Afghanistan and Iraq; three-quarters of those surveyed said they were "comfortable" interacting with gay people. Note the phrasing of the question; Zogby didn't ask "would you be willing to serve with openly gay personnel." The response to that query would have likely been much different, and probably less "tolerant" in the eyes of the General Shalikashvili and the Times editorial board.

As for the contrast between countries like Great Britian and Israel (which allow gays to openly serve in their armed forces), and our own, supposedly unenlightened policies, well, the comparison is simply invalid. A military is always a reflection of the society that produces it. Both Britain and Israel are decidely more liberal in their outlook on a variety of social issues, ranging from socialized medicine, to welfare benefits. Allowing gays to serve in their armed forces is consistent with the collective mindset that has emerged in those countries over the past 50 years.

Moreover, while both the U.K. and Israel have skilled, highly-professional militaries, neither has the global responsibilities of the United States, nor the requirement to attract--and retain--the large numbers of professional soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines needed for our current force structure. Britain's Royal Air Force, for example, is about one-fifth the size of the USAF. Israel's active-duty military forces are even smaller, and supplemented by a vast network of reserves. In a nation with only 7 million people, surrounded by hostile neighbors, it's a necessity; Israel cannot afford to turn away any able-bodied recruit, whatever their sexual preference might be.

Would a similar policy work in the U.S. military? At this juncture, I have my doubts, and it's not the result of alleged bigotry or homophobia. While most of us have no problem with gays and lesbians pursuing the American dream, a significant number still believe that homosexuality is morally wrong, based on our Judeo-Christian beliefs. A 2002 University of Chicago poll found that 53% of Americans believe that homosexuality is "always wrong" while only one- third considered it "not wrong at all." A 2003 Pew survey produced similar numbers; 55% of those polled by Pew believe it's a "sin" to engage in homosexual behavior.

And, those views are held most widely among southerners and residents of rural areas--the demographic groups that provide most of our military enlistees. Allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military could prompt many from the south and rural areas to re-think their plans to join the armed forces, resulting in a potential recruiting crisis. According to the Pentagon, 35% of the nation's active duty military personnel come from 13 southern states--the same region that rejects gay marriage (another hot-button issue for the GLAAD crowd) by a 67-23% margin, according to the Pew Survey. Rural Americans are even more opposed to gay marriage, and both groups probably hold similar views on homosexuals serving in the military. These attitudes may moderate over time, but you cannot dictate an instant change in the moral views of millions of Americans through new recruiting legislation, or an executive order.

For the Pentagon, the message from this data is clear: allowing gays to openly serve may attract more recruits from urban areas, but at the cost of fewer enlistees from areas that (historically) provide the bulk of our military personnel. Making matters even more difficult, the suggested change in policies would require the imposition of new values and standards of conduct on a military culture that is already over-stressed by War on Terror. Wartime is always a bad time for social experimentation in the ranks, particularly when most military personnel recognize this issue for what it is: an attempt to impose vastly different standards on a military that is, in some respects, already tolerant of gays within the ranks.

You see, many elements within DoD already had an informal "don't ask, don't tell" policy long before Bill Clinton entered the White House. During the "dark days" of the 1980s, I served with two NCOs that were gay. Both were outstanding performers, and no one bothered to investigate their sexual preferences because they excelled at their duties, and never made their lifestyle an issue. One of these NCOs (let's call him Rick) actually died from AIDS after being medically retired from active duty. His medical records indicated that he contracted the disease after a skin puncture by a dental instrument used in treating an HIV-positive patient (he was a military dental technician at the time). Never mind that the odds of getting AIDS through a single prick are relatively low--and that Rick had a long relationship with his male roommate. As far as our commander was concerned, what Rick did in his private life was his business--as long as it didn't become a public matter for our unit. And, this commander was hardly a liberal; he was a by-the-book SAC Colonel in every sense of that phrase. But he also recognized that bedroom witch hunts were counter-productive, particularly when the individual in question was an outstanding troop.

The same could be said for Tom, the "other" gay NCO I served with. Tom was one of the very best enlisted intelligence specialists within our command. His unit-level shop received "outstanding" ratings from the inspector general (IG) team; his airmen worshipped him, and he eventually attained senior NCO status. His lifestyle never became a concern, because (a) he never made it an issue, and (b) our leadership had the good sense to let him do his job, and focus on more pressing conduct and discipline concerns. Both Rick and Tom may have been in the closet, but it certainly did not affect their job performance, nor the high esteem they enjoyed within their units. Their ability to advance and prosper in the military of the Reagan era runs counter to GLAAD's persistent claims that military commanders were on a crusade to remove gays from their units.

Two decades later, the same system that allowed Rick and Tom to serve their country honorably still exists within most military organizations, and it remains the most effective mechanism for letting gays and lesbians serve in the armed forces. General Shalikashvili's op-ed, on the other hand, is nothing more than an effort to re-ignite the "gays in service" issue, in advance of the 2008 presidential election. His proposal may be the politically correct solution, but it is impractical from a military standpoint, both in terms of implementation (should same-sex partners get DoD health and survivor benefits?), and the potential impact on future recruitment and retention efforts. The long-standing, informal system of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" never had the weight of law, but it worked--and still works--for gays and lesbians who put service to their nation ahead of their sexual orientation.


ADDENDUM: This issue has always been more important to activists than gays who actually serve in the military. For the activist crowd, allowing gays to serve openly in the military provides another mechanism for "sanctioning" their lifestyle, and put more pressure on the states to allow civil unions or gay marriages. And, from what little annecdotal evidence I can gather, many gays and lesbians now serving in the armed forces would probably prefer to keep the current system in place. Some are horrified by the prospect of a "gay pride" parade or commeration on base, complete with the outlandish behavior often seen at similar, "civilian" events. That sort of spectacle, accompanied by the rest of the activist agenda ("forced" acceptance of same-sex couples in base housing, health care for partners, marriage ceremonies in the base chapel, etc) would actually create more "acceptance" problems for gays now serving on active duty.

One final thought: gay rights groups often cite the number of personnel discharged for homosexuality (more than 10,000) under the "official" Don't Ask/Don't Tell policy. But they ignore the fact that many of these discharges are the result of military members reporting their preference to unit commanders, to avoid unpleasant duty, or to simply get out of service early. The nation's leading military sociologist, Dr. Charles Moskos of Northwestern University, believes most of the "gay discharges" fall into that category. Moskos also opined that allowing openly gay people into the military -- especially combat arms positions -- could cause the services to lose many more recruits who would be uncomfortable living in close quarters with them.


ADDENDUM #2: It's worth remembering that General Shalikashvili was JCS Chairman when Bill Clinton was cutting four divisions from the "active" Army, a decision that has resulted in fewer "boots on the ground" for subsequent conflicts. An explanation of that decision would have been a far better use of the op-ed space (IMO), but obviously, I don't share the same agenda as General Shalikashvili, or his friends at the Times.

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