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Don't Change 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

From the October 12, 2009 issue: There are sound reasons--unbigoted ones--for our policy on gays in the military.

Oct 12, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 04 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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Reporting on the prospective dismissal from the Air Force of a decorated combat veteran, Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fehrenbach, because he had been identified by somebody else as gay, the Washington Post recently wrote:

After investigating, the Air Force charged him last September with damaging its good order and discipline. The "don't ask, don't tell" law, passed by Congress in 1993, prohibits gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces.

This is a common mistake. Actually, there is no "Don't ask, don't tell" law. The law passed by Congress in 1993 (USC Section 654, Title 10) says, "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."

"Don't ask, don't tell" is of course the name given to the executive order by Bill Clinton which was designed at once to implement and to circumvent this law. That is presumably why, as the Post notes, President Obama thinks any change "should be done legislatively," since an executive order from him allowing homosexuals equal status in the military would be in defiance of the law as written by Congress. Prospects for such legislation are increasing. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has asked the president and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to "bring to Congress your recommendations" for changing "Don't ask, don't tell." There is a legislative effort in the House, HR 1283, that is likely to come up for debate in the coming weeks, though it is doubtful, to say the least, whether "debate" is the right word. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have just published an essay in their quarterly journal (winner of the "2009 Secretary of Defense National Security Essay Competition") that explicitly compares the end of "Don't, ask, don't tell" to the civil-rights struggle to racially integrate the armed forces. And what debate can there be between right and wrong?

"Don't ask, don't tell" is a tribute to our national talent for hypocrisy. Yes, President Clinton was prepared to agree, homosexual acts might be a risk to the high standards of morale, good order, discipline, and unit cohesion, but if nobody knew about them, then what harm could they do? Since then, nobody has thought up a better way of coping with this thorny problem. The left has nothing better to offer than riding roughshod over the opinions of the majority of servicemen--58 percent in the latest Military Times poll--and repealing the law. The same poll found that 10 percent of respondents would leave the service if gays were allowed openly to serve and another 14 percent would consider leaving. We have at least to take seriously the possibility that this would be the price of treating military service as a human right.

This it clearly cannot be. There are all kinds of people--the very young and the very old, the sick or disabled, violent criminals or, in combat roles, women--whom we regard as unfit to be soldiers. The fact that open homosexuals are also excluded cannot by itself be considered an injustice. The mere assumption that it is may be related to the fact that the advocates of integrating gay soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines into the armed forces so often speak, mistakenly, about the "repeal" of the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy--as if, like waterboarding, it were a simple matter of presidential will to discontinue a practice that the "rights" lobby finds abhorrent. It's an assumption that often seems to go with the moralized politics of the Age of Obama.

The moralization owes something to President Obama's style of oratory, which has a regrettable tendency towards happy-talk. Thus he tells us that we don't have to choose between our ideals and our security, or between jobs and the environment, or between universal health care and a manageable deficit. These are supposedly "false choices." A big part of this new moralism has to do with the easy assumptions of the popular and media cultures that a whole range of issues, from gay marriage to global warming to Guantánamo, are morally perspicuous and that those on the wrong side of them must be supposed for that reason alone to be corrupt or bigoted. Apparently, when you sign on to the "progressive" agenda, you get a whole outfit of moral certainties that would make the allegedly simplistic George W. Bush green with envy.

Such certainty seems to be infectious, too. As Sam Schulman wrote in these pages a few months ago,