Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

By   |  January 25, 2010

Richard Socarides was a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and the senior White House adviser on gay rights from 1997 to 1999. In yet another fusillade of friendly fire from his own base, Mr. Socarides just took aim at the President in Ask Obama About Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in The Wall Street Journal.

Many people are wondering about President Obama’s willingness, if not his ability, to follow-up on his campaign promises. Changing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the U.S. military is one of the easiest promises he could keep because he can do it on his own authority.

As Mr. Socarides accurately points out, it doesn’t take an act of Congress to change the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The Department of Defense can apply the law in a number of ways, to include deciding not to discharge openly gay service members. Given the sensitivity of the issue, President Obama would certainly be required to publicly support a change in DOD policy, if not actually direct that the policy change be made.

The President would have been wise not to make the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” promise during the campaign if he wasn’t sure he could make good on it. He may be worried that taking on this issue now, in the midst of so many other policy controversies, is ill-advised. He also may be remembering the buzz saw Bill Clinton walked into in 1993 when he tried to change policies to permit openly gay service members to remain in the military, which resulted in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as a goofy compromise. As any mother would say to a son who had erred, “You should have thought about that when you did it.”

The truth is, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” isn’t much different from military policy that was in effect before the Clinton Administration. Back then, service members who admitted to being gay, or even having “homosexual thoughts,” were subject to discharge. The reality, however, was that commanders often took a blind eye, choosing not to pursue the issue when there was reason to think that someone under their command might be gay, provided that the service member did not otherwise engage in prohibited behavior. And by the way, I speak to that reality on the basis of quite a few years in command positions in the Army.

I suppose that in the most perfect military world, any armed force would achieve maximum effectiveness on the Spartan model. Every soldier and Marine, in particular, would be male, strong, in perfect and extraordinary physical condition, possessed of high intelligence, and dedicated to a harsh life of military service and sacrifice since his early youth.

The Spartan model is nonsense, of course. The armed forces of every nation are a reflection of the society from which they are drawn. That’s the way it should be because all qualified citizens should have the opportunity to serve in the common defense of their country.

The U.S. military has long been far ahead of most of the rest of our society in providing equal opportunity for all our citizens who wish to serve (or, in the past, may have been drafted). There are mental, physical, and other qualifications, of course, but the average citizen can almost always serve if he or she wishes.

When President Truman integrated the military in 1947, there were dire predictions that treating African Americans as all other soldiers were treated would be a disaster. Didn’t happen. When women were more thoroughly integrated into most military specialties and the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was abolished in 1978, there were again dire predictions which proved baseless.

Now it’s time for the military to maintain its leadership as the most advanced segment of society in terms of treating everyone equally by granting gay service members the full rights of all others who serve. Can doing so cause problems, at least initially? Sure. There may be issues of who uses what toilet and shower facilities, some straight men may feel threatened, and so on. But it will work, and the main reason it will work is because the American soldier is open-minded and team-oriented. We judge our fellow soldiers on their competence, professionalism, and courage. Everything else comes second.

So let’s get on with it. The President and the Secretary of Defense should abolish the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy immediately. Congress can follow along with new legislation, assuming they can get anything at all done. Then we’ll be where we should be, where every member of the U.S. armed forces is treated equally, all judged on the sole basis of their professionalism and personal conduct.

At this point in our history, we have far more difficult problems to solve.

(This article was also published at Opinion Forum.)

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