Congress will soon decide whether to retain or repeal the 1993 law that excludes homosexuals from eligibility to serve in the armed forces. Although separate from a Defense Department policy popularly known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the statute is routinely confused with that policy and described by the same phrase. The distinction is important, however, and bears directly on the effectiveness of our armed forces.
The Washington Post recently applauded a few members of Congress for requesting Pentagon figures they hope will prove that exclusion of homosexuals imperils military readiness by forcing out valuable personnel. On the contrary, official statistics reveal that since passage of the law 16 years ago, total discharges for homosexuality amount to less than three-quarters of 1 percent of those discharged before completion of enlistment or retirement. More than four times as many have been discharged for inability to maintain personal weight standards.
Moreover, as a 2009 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report notes, most in this small percentage are "junior personnel with very little time in the military," and "the number of cases involving career service members is relatively small."
The CRS added, "The great majority of discharges for homosexual conduct are uncontested and processed administratively," with most receiving honorable discharges. Even this small number of separations might have been avoided with better understanding of the eligibility exclusion that Congress wrote into law following extensive analysis. Twelve congressional hearings and exploratory field trips resulted in the codification of 15 "findings," which were incorporated into the 1993 law to ensure clarity concerning the rationale behind the statute (Section 654, Title 10).
The key findings affirm: "There is no Constitutional right to serve in the armed forces"; "The primary purpose of the armed forces is to prepare for and to prevail in combat"; "Success in combat requires military units that are characterized by high morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion"; and "one of the most critical elements in combat capability is unit cohesion, that is, the bonds of trust among individual service members."
Importantly, the statute declared: "The extraordinary responsibilities of the armed forces, the unique conditions of military service, and the critical role of unit cohesion, require that the military community, while subject to civilian control, exist as a specialized society ... characterized by its own laws, rules, customs, and traditions, including numerous restrictions on personal behavior that would not be acceptable in civilian society."
Finally, the law found that "The presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability."
The law and its supporting findings, which remain valid today, are not guided by considerations involving civil rights, compassion, or individual "fairness." Nor are they based on opinion polls of those not responsible for or qualified to judge military effectiveness or who do not understand the uniqueness of military service.
Rather, the law and its findings reflect one priority: minimizing the risk to the nation's military capabilities. They reflect the informed reasoning of those to whom the Constitution gives the sole right to "raise armies, provide and maintain a navy and make the rules for the government thereof": the Congress.
As lawmakers consider the continuing efficacy of the law, it is imperative that they, and those who offer advice on the subject, focus carefully on the studied and deliberately concluded findings that underpin it. They should also take note of the strong support the law enjoys among many of those who have been charged with ensuring military readiness over long careers of service.
That sentiment has been powerfully expressed recently by more than 1,160 retired flag and general officers from all the armed services, who have spent much of their careers assessing and ensuring military readiness and effectiveness. These leaders personally signed a statement addressed to the president and the Congress urging continued support for the 1993 law (www.FlagandGeneralOfficersfortheMilitary.com). The signatories include officers in command and other significant positions in wars as recent as Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as those who commanded forces in previous wars. They represent the largest number of American senior officers to have jointly conveyed their views and recommendations on a single issue in the history of our nation. Their advice should not be ignored.
American armed forces are the gold standard of the world in terms of combat effectiveness. Our military is engaged in two major conflicts and numerous deterrent operations and performing at consistently high operating tempos. This is no time to subject it to risky, politically driven social engineering orchestrated to satisfy individual and special interest demands, instead of enhancing military effectiveness.
Maintain the law.
Carl Mundy is a retired general and former commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.