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Gays and the Military: A Bad Fit

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By James J. Lindsay, Jerome Johnson, E.G. "Buck" Shuler Jr. and Joseph J. Went
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

With the nation engaged in two wars and facing a number of potential adversaries, this is no time to weaken our military. Yet if gay rights activists and their allies have their way, grave harm will soon be inflicted on our all-volunteer force.

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The administration and some in Congress have pledged to repeal Section 654 of U.S. Code Title 10, which states that homosexuals are not eligible for military service. Often confused with the "don't ask, don't tell" regulations issued by President Bill Clinton, this statute establishes several reasons that homosexuality is incompatible with military service.

Section 654 recognizes that the military is a "specialized society" that is "fundamentally different from civilian life." It requires a unique code of personal conduct and demands "extraordinary sacrifices, including the ultimate sacrifice, in order to provide for the common defense." The law appreciates military personnel who, unlike civilians who go home after work, must accept living conditions that are often "characterized by forced intimacy with little or no privacy."

While there have been changes in civilian society since this statute was adopted by wide bipartisan majorities in 1993, the military realities it describes abide. If anything, they are more acute in wartime.

In our experience, and that of more than 1,000 retired flag and general officers who have joined us in signing an open letter to President Obama and Congress, repeal of this law would prompt many dedicated people to leave the military. Polling by Military Times of its active-duty subscribers over the past four years indicates that 58 percent have consistently opposed repeal. In its most recent survey, 10 percent said they would not reenlist if that happened, and 14 percent said they would consider leaving.

If just the lesser number left the military, our active-duty, reserve and National Guard forces would lose 228,600 people -- more than the total of today's active-duty Marine Corps. Losses of even a few thousand sergeants, petty officers and experienced mid-grade officers, when we are trying to expand the Army and Marine Corps, could be crippling.

And the damage would not stop there. Legislation introduced to repeal Section 654 (H.R. 1283) would impose on commanders a radical policy that mandates "nondiscrimination" against "homosexuality, or bisexuality, whether the orientation is real or perceived." Mandatory training classes and judicial proceedings would consume valuable time defining that language. Team cohesion and concentration on missions would suffer if our troops had to live in close quarters with others who could be sexually attracted to them.

We don't need a study commission to know that tensions are inevitable in conditions offering little or no privacy, increasing the stress of daily military life. "Zero tolerance" of dissent would become official intolerance of anyone who disagrees with this policy, forcing additional thousands to leave the service by denying them promotions or punishing them in other ways. Many more will be dissuaded from ever enlisting. There is no compelling national security reason for running these risks to our armed forces. Discharges for homosexual conduct have been few compared with separations for other reasons, such as pregnancy/family hardship or weight-standard violations. There are better ways to remedy shortages in some military specialties than imposing social policies that would escalate losses of experienced personnel who are not easily replaced.

Some suggest that the United States must emulate Denmark, the Netherlands and Canada, which have incorporated homosexuals into their forces. But none of these countries has the institutional culture or worldwide responsibilities of our military. America's armed forces are models for our allies' militaries and the envy of our adversaries -- not the other way around.

As former senior commanders, we know that the reason for this long-standing envy is the unsurpassed discipline, morale and readiness of our military. The burden should be on proponents of repeal to demonstrate how their initiative would improve these qualities of our armed services. This they cannot do.

Consequently, our recent open letter advised America's elected leaders: "We believe that imposing this burden on our men and women in uniform would undermine recruiting and retention, impact leadership at all echelons, have adverse effects on the willingness of parents who lend their sons and daughters to military service, and eventually break the All-Volunteer Force."

Everyone can serve America in some way, but there is no constitutional right to serve in the military. The issue is not one of individual desires, or of the norms and mores of civilian society. Rather, the question is one of national security and the discipline, morale, readiness and culture of the U.S. armed forces upon which that security depends. It is a question we cannot afford to answer in a way that breaks our military.

Retired Army Gen. James J. Lindsay was the first commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. Retired Adm. Jerome Johnson was vice chief of naval operations. Retired Lt. Gen. E.G. "Buck" Shuler Jr. was commander of the Strategic Air Command's 8th Air Force. Retired Gen. Joseph J. Went was assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. They are founding members of Flag and General Officers for the Military.


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