The Right to Serve

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

GEN. PETER PACE, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, yesterday refused to apologize for saying that homosexual acts are "immoral," explaining that he was expressing his "personal moral views." He's entitled to his opinions, of course. But when it comes to shaping public policy, he's obligated to reach a bit higher -- to consider facts and evidence and the impact of his public expressions of intolerance on the men and women he commands.

In response to a question on his views about the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military, but not as openly gay or lesbian, Gen. Pace told the Chicago Tribune on Monday, "I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts. I do not believe the United States is well served by a policy that says it is okay to be immoral in any way."

"Don't ask, don't tell" is the misguided policy instituted in 1993 by President Bill Clinton that deprives the military of able-bodied men and women who want to serve their country. It made no sense in a time of peace. It is absurd in a time of war. One of Gen. Pace's predecessors, retired Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, called for reconsideration of the policy earlier this year.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have worn on, the Pentagon has had to lower its recruitment standards. "Moral waivers," granted to Army recruits with misdemeanor and felony convictions, nearly doubled between 2003 and 2006. One such recruit, Pvt. Steven D. Green, stands accused of raping a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and murdering her and her family. Meanwhile, the Defense Department purged 11,077 troops -- including 322 desperately needed linguists -- from its ranks between 1994 and 2005 simply because they were gay, although the pace of expulsions seems to have slowed as the military's needs outweighed its moral scruples. Homosexuals serve admirably and openly -- without fear of prosecution or sneering judgment -- in 24 countries, including Israel, Australia and Britain, America's staunchest ally in the Iraq war. Neither morale nor military performance has suffered.

As Gen. Pace considers the uproar over his remarks on morality, he might reflect on Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Fidelis Alva, who like his father and grandfather chose to serve in the military. When he enlisted 17 years ago, he lied about his sexual orientation. Sgt. Alva was the first American wounded in the Iraq war, when he stepped on a land mine. President Bush presented him with the Purple Heart. His moral fitness for duty was unquestioned. What's immoral is that Sgt. Alva -- and thousands of other brave members of the armed forces -- had to lie or be silent for the right, the risk and the honor of serving his country.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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