Barack Obama has taken a firestorm of criticism for his reversal, at least thus far, on ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the American military. Today, a former chair of the Joint Chiefs goes where Obama apparently fears to tread. In a column for the Washington Post, retired General John Shalikasvili explains why an end to DADT is not just inevitable and desirable, but ultimately a wash at worst:
Tradition is a critical military value, and the armed forces have a long-standing tradition of banning gay men and lesbians. Equally important military traditions, however, are learning and adapting — and my colleagues made claims as if no new knowledge has been acquired over past decades, during which time Israel and Britain joined more than 20 other nations to allow openly gay individuals to serve without overall problems. In Britain and Canada, polls had indicated that thousands would resign if gays were allowed to serve, but when the bans were lifted, almost no one left. The British Defense Ministry conducted several assessments of the policy change and called it a “solid achievement.” The flag officers neglected to acknowledge Britain’s experience, instead dismissing the relevance of nations such as “Denmark, the Netherlands and Canada.” While it is true that the U.S. armed forces are unique, it is important that we not marginalize the lessons learned in other countries — particularly those that often conduct joint operations with us.
But it is not just foreign militaries that show service by openly gay individuals works. The U.S. military itself has had successful experiences. Enforcement of the ban was suspended without problems during the Persian Gulf War, and there were no reports of angry departures. A majority of U.S. service members say they know or believe that someone in their unit is gay, according to a 2006 Zogby International poll, and most of those who know of openly gay peers report no detriment to morale or cohesion. A recent study co-authored by Laura Miller of Rand Corp. found no correlation between a unit’s readiness and whether known gays serve in it. And last year, four retired flag and general officers studied all available evidence and found that allowing gays to serve posed no risk to force readiness. …
The officers who oppose lifting the ban argued in The Post that there is “no compelling national security reason” to let openly gay troops serve. They also say, however, that “losses of even a few thousand sergeants, petty officers and experienced mid-grade officers” — those they believe might bolt — are unaffordable. Under current policy, we have lost more than 13,000 of those people, such as the Arabic language speaker featured in the new film “Ask Not.” In addition, researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles have found that nearly 4,000 people leave voluntarily each year because of the ban, and that more than 40,000 recruits might join if the ban is ended.
I have the same position that conservative icon Barry Goldwater took on this question. The only thing that mattered to Goldwater was whether a soldier could shoot straight. As long as a member of the military abides by the regulations governing conduct, sexual orientation should make no difference.
In fact, DADT has proven that correct. The policy presumes that gays can serve effectively in the military unless their orientation becomes public. That means that the problem isn’t with the soldier or sailor, but with the service itself, a rather odd hypocrisy that sometimes gets overlooked. When else do we discriminate on the basis of not what a person is or does, but what others think of it? The sixteen-year experiment of DADT shows that gays serve effectively in the military otherwise, which should be enough for them to have the same access to serving their country as anyone else. It has also not produced a massive exodus of people from the service during that time.
Perhaps the best way to transition from DADT would be to end it one branch at a time. That would allow the Pentagon to work through any potential readiness issues as well as transfer high-value personnel (like translators) into positions where we can continue to use their skills effectively. Eventually, though, we will end the transitional policy of DADT, because in the end, it’s unnecessary and limiting.