February 9, 2009
The New York Times
GENERALS are scolded for preparing to fight “the last war,” but if President Obama intends to keep his promise to allow gays to serve openly in the military, he would do well to study President Bill Clinton’s attempt of 16 years ago.
The Clinton argument, based largely on protecting the civil rights of gay troops, was systematically dissected by senior officers and legislators, who focused on how the presence of homosexuals could affect combat readiness. Generals circulated videos made by conservative groups depicting “gay agendas.” Senators brought television crews into cramped berthings. Congress reached a bizarre compromise: a law rendering homosexuality incompatible with military service, but allowing gays to serve under a closet-friendly “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
The lesson for President Obama is that this fight is not about rights, but about combat readiness. This is a propitious moment for seeking change: a nation at war needs all its most talented troops. Last year the principal architects of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” former Gen. Colin Powell and former Senator Sam Nunn, said it was time to “review” the policy.
That’s a polite way of saying they’ve changed their minds. So have many of us who wore the uniform in 1993 and supported a policy that forced some of our fellow troops to live a lie and rejected thousands who told the truth.
There are other aspects of history that may be helpful as well. The armed forces initially resisted President Harry Truman’s 1948 order to integrate the ranks. But the Korean War forced trials by fire — in fact, the units with the highest casualty rates in Korea integrated the swiftest — and the Pentagon ultimately acknowledged that recruiting from across America’s socio-economic spectrum produced the best force. After that, the military swiftly set the standard for race relations.
Servicemen continue to be fierce believers in the idea that diversity equals strength, yet during the Clinton effort on gay troops most of us rejected analogies to racial integration. The homosexual threat to good order and discipline was behavioral, we argued, not physiological, and therefore unrelated.
It was a flawed argument. The underlying fears were the same as with integration: homosexuals jeopardized unit cohesion not because of their own conduct — after all, military law and command discretion encompass behavioral breaches — but because of the perceived reaction of those xenophobic troops who didn’t want to cohabitate with people different from themselves. Today, this sounds like one of the “worn-out dogmas” President Obama identified in his inaugural speech. And it does a disservice to the ranks.
Maintaining “don’t ask, don’t tell” ignores a vast social shift since 1993. Only 26 percent of Americans supported Truman’s order, so it was little wonder that desegregation stalled. When President Clinton announced his initiative, 44 percent of Americans were in favor of homosexuals serving openly, which perhaps explains the split decision of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
But today nearly 80 percent of Americans feel that way. As our troops tend to reflect the values of our society, lifting the homosexual ban will be easier now.
In addition, six years of war have clarified priorities. The battlefield has its own values, starting with courage. Sexual orientation falls somewhere below musical taste. What a person chooses to do back stateside, off-duty, in his own apartment is irrelevant in a fight. For months I lived with 12 other American advisers on an Iraqi outpost. There was a single pipe shower next to a hole that masqueraded as a sewer. But the reality of combat dominated personality quirks — nobody wondered about sexual orientation.
Most military jobs are office-based and provide sufficient individual privacy. Even in Iraq many of our fighting forces are comfortably housed with compartmentalized showers.
A 2006 poll of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans showed that 72 percent were personally comfortable interacting with gays. Bonnie Moradi, a University of Florida psychologist, and Laura Miller, a sociologist at the Rand Corporation, summarized the study this way: “The data indicated no associations between knowing a lesbian or gay unit member and ratings of perceived unit cohesion or readiness. Instead, findings pointed to the importance of leadership and instrumental quality in shaping perceptions of unit cohesion and readiness.”
The other readiness argument concerns recruiting. To fill its swelling ranks, the military now grants one in five recruits waivers for disqualifications that run the gamut from attention-deficit disorder to obesity to armed robbery convictions. In a press conference last fall, Maj. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the head of Army recruiting, said the relevant question in considering such applicants was, “Does that person deserve an opportunity to serve their country?” That’s exactly right. And to choose a felon over a combat-proven veteran on the basis of sexuality is defeatist. Ask any squad leader.
In the end, however, there is one factor that outweighs public opinion, troop morale and recruiting combined. The military is a dictatorship, not a republic. It is built to win in combat. Its strict codes of conduct ensure good order and discipline.
If “don’t ask, don’t tell” is rescinded, military leaders will ensure smooth compliance, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, has said. Cohesion depends on leadership. Our troops will follow the lead of our combat-tested professionals who base their opinions on what a soldier brings to the fight, and little else.