This is a tale of two militaries. The year is 1993. A new American president, untested by military service of his own, stumbles into a messy public spat with military brass over treatment of gay and lesbian service members. Candidate Bill Clinton had promised to allow citizens to serve in the military regardless of sexual orientation. But as president, all Clinton can do is achieve a muddy compromise with a reluctant Congress — legislation that allows gays and lesbians to serve, but only as long as their sexuality was their secret. Hence, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Meanwhile, the Israeli military charts a different path. Beginning in 1983, the Israel Defense Forces had permitted gays and lesbians to serve, but banned them from intelligence and top-secret positions. Then an IDF officer reveals that his rank had been revoked and that he had been barred from researching sensitive topics in military intelligence, solely because of his sexual orientation. His testimony before the Knesset ignites a political storm, and the IDF’s restrictions are withdrawn.
Fast forward to today. Israel is one of 24 nations that allows openly gay men and women to serve in the military. And while some gay soldiers report sexual harassment has not entirely abated, “gays in the military” is no longer an issue, even though Israel retains a decidedly “macho” culture and counts on military strength and cohesion for its very survival.
Meanwhile in America, we’re still arguing.
Worse, at a time when this nation’s fighting forces are stretched thin by the heavy demands of two wars, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network estimates that 287 troops have been discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell since the start of Barack Obama’s presidency. And more than 13,000 have had to leave since the law’s enactment in 1994, including some 800 men and women with skills deemed “mission critical,” such as pilots, combat engineers and linguists.
The arguments to maintain the status quo wither under the slightest scrutiny. There is no credible evidence that this outdated law helps military quality, unity or preparedness; indeed, the experience in Israel, Britain and other American allies firmly proves the opposite. Those who worry that this is the wrong time to mess with military tradition have to ask themselves: When is there a better time? When we’re fighting on three fronts?
Those who worry about public sentiment just need to check the opinion polls. A 2008 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 75% of Americans favor allowing gays to serve openly in the armed services, compared to 44% in 1993. Other polls show that even a majority of churchgoing Republicans support a change. And the percentages are even higher when younger people are surveyed. So much for hurting recruitment. For most young Americans, sexual orientation is no big deal in school, at work or on the battlefield.
On this issue, Congress and the president are genuinely out of touch and out of step. That needs to change, quickly. There is a legitimate constitutional question as to whether the president can repeal a policy created by Congress, so both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have to act.
To begin with, the president should stop resisting and sign an executive order banning further separations from the military, to stop the useless outflow of talent. Meanwhile, Congress must push ahead on the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, the legislative vehicle to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Fortunately, the congressional effort has fresh, new leadership in the form of Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Pennsylvania Democrat who is now lead sponsor of the House bill that had been shepherded by former Rep. Ellen Tauscher until she retired to join the Obama administration. Murphy is the first Iraq War veteran elected to Congress, a West Point graduate and former Army captain who represents a blue-collar district outside Philadelphia. On July 8, he announced a national campaign for repeal, complete with a website: www.letthemserve.com, and the 151st sponsor of the legislation.
“People ask why does an Irish-Catholic guy who’s straight and married care so much about [overturning] ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Murphy told Stars and Stripes. “And I tell them it’s because this is something I believe in. It’s a failed policy that hurts national security. We all knew people who we served with who were gay, and it didn’t affect their job. It didn’t affect me personally. But they were discriminated against, and that shouldn’t be.”