On March 31, 1,100 retired admirals and generals, known as the Flag and General Officers of the Military, delivered an open letter to Congress opposing any bill that might seek to overturn the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy from military procedure.
“We believe that imposing this burden on our men and women in uniform would undermine recruiting and retention, impact leadership at all levels, have adverse effects on the willingness of parents who lend their sons and daughters to military service, and eventually break the all-volunteer force. … Forcing soldiers to live so closely with openly gay troops for months at a time does hurt morale and cohesion,” the petition said.
The flag officers organization is a project within the Center for Military Readiness (CMR), a conservative nonprofit that advocates for “sound military personnel policies,” according to its Web site.
Since President Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009, gay and lesbian activist groups have been pressuring the administration to repeal Section 654 of Public Law 103-160, more popularly known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
The policy was instituted by President Clinton in 1993 as a compromise. The policy excludes openly gay and bisexual soldiers from participating in the military. It also prohibits them from disclosing their orientation. Superiors are barred from investigating soldiers to try to discover their sexual orientation. Approximately 265 soldiers have been discharged in accordance with “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2009; more than 12,500 service members have been discharged since the inception of the law 16 years ago.
Reversing “don’t ask, don’t tell” and allowing openly gay soldiers to serve in the armed forces is tantamount to forcing female soldiers to cohabit with men in intimate quarters, said Tommy Sears, executive director of CMR, in an interview with The Washington Times. This is especially alarming, in his view, because it would take place on all military bases and naval vessels, all the time.
“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,” according to Section 654.
Mr. Obama has made it clear that he supports the gay and lesbian community. On his campaign Web site, Mr. Obama dedicated an entire section to “Obama Pride,” referring to the worldwide gay pride movement.
“Barack Obama agrees with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili and other military experts that we need to repeal the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” according to the gay rights section of the Web site.
Mr. Obama sanctioned June as “Pride Month” and met with members of the gay and lesbian community and promised to repeal Section 654.
“I believe ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ doesn’t contribute to our national security. I believe preventing patriotic Americans from serving their country weakens our national security,” Mr. Obama said in a June 30 speech to gay rights activists at the White House. However, the president abstained from providing a specific time frame as to when the repeal would take place.
While the president has built strong ties with the gay and lesbian community, he has not yet advocated legislative change. Meanwhile, fellow Democrats are eager to repeal the existing law. California Democratic Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher introduced H.R. 1238, titled the “Military Readiness Enhancement Act of 2009,” which explicitly repeals “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The bill was introduced in committee on March 3 and already has 150 co-signers. Ms. Tauscher has since left Congress for a senior position at the State Department.
Mr. Obama believes “the only and best way [to overturn ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’] is through a durable comprehensive legislative process,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
“Its the right thing to do - to end discrimination against a certain group of people for no good reason,” said Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Congress and Mr. Obama should repeal Section 654 in order to “enhance military readiness,” Mr. Korb said.
Mr. Sears of CMR disagrees, saying there is no constitutional right to serve in the military.
“The military sets eligibility standards that differ from those found routinely in civilian employment,” Mr. Sears said. “Individuals can be discharged for weight violations, health reasons or other personal circumstances that would never be a consideration for termination in civilian jobs. These standards are required for the unique conditions and requirements of military life, [including] extended periods away from home and mandatory assignment to quarters with individuals regardless of personal preference.”
“Despite Mr. Korbs statement, these standards are in place for particularly good reasons: to maintain the utmost good order, discipline and morale that is crucial for military readiness,” Mr. Sears said.
“Would repeal of the law regarding homosexuals in the military improve or undermine discipline, morale and overall readiness in the all-volunteer force?” the CMR Web site asks. Members maintain that this is the main question Congress must answer.
Forced cohabitation in military conditions that offer little or no privacy would force people to live with persons who might be sexually attracted to them, Mr. Sears said.
In a recent poll conducted by the Military Times, 24 percent of active-duty subscribers said they would not re-enlist or consider not re-enlisting if “don’t ask, don’t tell” were repealed.
That would have a dramatic impact on the military. According to the National Review, a loss of 24 percent would mean the loss of 755,600 troops.
“Advocates of repealing the law always point to professional civilian polls that appear to support their cause, but they have been confounded by the annual Military Times surveys, which have always been more credible,” Elaine Donnelly, president and founder of CMR, wrote in a blog post for the National Review.
Mr. Sears is confident that, although Mr. Obama and many members of Congress want to repeal Section 654, they will not succeed.
“Congress passed the law making homosexuals ineligible for military service to maintain good order, discipline, unit cohesion and morale. All of these purposes remain as vital today as they were when the law was passed 16 years ago,” he said.
• Amanda Baker is a writer residing in Washington.