Finally, nearly 16 years after the foolhardy “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was enacted by Congress, the nation’s top two defense officials have called for an end to the pretense that somehow America’s military is better off if gay and lesbian service members keep their identities a secret.
“No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, eloquently told a Senate committee on February 2.
But the reason to repeal the ban on allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly isn’t just about feelings and fairness. It’s also about maintaining a strong military staffed by a devoted, talented corps of Americans, no matter their gender, race or sexual orientation. A nation that refuses to enact a draft while fighting two, difficult wars cannot afford to lose a single good soldier. Yet more than 13,000 have been discharged under the current policy, including much-needed Arabic translators. And the experience of many other nations without similarly restrictive policies — including Israel — proves that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly does not have to weaken unit cohesion, harm morale or jeopardize national security.
Even with Mullen’s unequivocal stand and Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s promise to study how, not if, to implement the change, repeal of the 1994 law still faces congressional opposition of the sort all too common these days. Illustrative is Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Republican who was for the repeal but is now is against it.
He is swimming against history. At its best, the American military has been a powerful positive force for integration, for allowing men, and then women, to be judged by what they do, not who they are. There should be no room for inappropriate behavior from anyone, straight or gay, but that — and that alone — should be the measure to ensure a true meritocracy and a force strong enough to defend the nation.
Mullen acknowledged that he has served with homosexuals since 1968. Everyone in the military has. It’s time for this fiction to end.