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The only reason to end 'don't ask, don't tell': military effectiveness

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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Repealing "Don't ask, don't tell" may be the right thing to do, but there's only one reason to do it: military effectiveness.

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Yet, repeatedly, we hear the argument that disallowing gay men and lesbians to be "openly gay" in the military is a denial of their civil rights. This argument isn't only mistaken, it is misplaced. Approaching "don't ask" as a civil rights issue is appealing and convenient, but it's really not quite that. Or rather, it isn't only that.

The military may be a microcosm of society in some ways, but it most definitely is not a democracy. Individuals don't have the usual rights that we honor in civilian society and, in fact, forfeit their freedoms when they wear the uniform.

If you want to test your free-speech rights, try criticizing your commanding officer.

This issue is so fraught with emotion and personal conflict that it's difficult to summon the dispassion needed. It feels silly and patronizing to say that gays and lesbians are equal to the task of serving in the military, because it is so obvious and true.

Moreover, gays and lesbians already have served honorably and valiantly, so what, one might ask, is the big deal? Why make people pretend they're not who they are?

Then again, is that really the most relevant question? Given the nature of the military, the more pressing concern is whether changing the current policy will enhance -- or at least not undermine -- military performance.

In combat, as all who have served will tell you, unit cohesion is crucial. Whether serving as "openly gay," the definition and ramifications of which remain unclear, will affect that cohesion is the great unknown. The enlightened views of a few urban dwellers for whom "unit cohesion" is an abstraction are not necessarily useful to the debate.

Does the fact that society as a whole has become more accepting of gays mean that the military environment will be equally welcoming? Or will we see special training camps for guys who just can't get with the program?

I posit these questions with open heart and mind. As a civilian without military experience, I accept my limitations in making such judgments, but would urge those contemplating a new policy to check that their motivations are moored to military rather than civilian imperatives.

There's no question that attitudes toward gays have relaxed in the 16 years since "don't ask, don't tell" was passed. A new generation of Americans has been raised in an atmosphere of greater acceptance. Views also have softened among older Americans, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who favor repeal.

Even my Marine vet brother, who survived Khe Sanh in 1968, insisted for years that gays would have been a huge problem in Vietnam. Today he says: "Gay, schmay. If he has the guts to go through the things I did, then good for him. . . . No doubt we all served with gay guys and never knew it. Gays aren't stupid and they darn sure know who is friendly and who isn't. I say leave it to the troops and forget about it."

The operative words in his mellower assessment may be "never knew it," which remain central to arguments in favor of keeping the policy intact. To what extent, if any, does "knowing" affect cohesion and what, exactly, does "knowing" entail? The truth is, we don't know, and a policy change would constitute an experiment.

Among sober arguments favoring repeal of the law is the particular idiocy of banning or removing someone who is otherwise useful to the military. The several Arabic-speaking gays who were scrubbed when the military was sorely lacking in communications personnel in Iraq come to mind.

Equally absurd is the notion that gays cannot abide by the rules against fraternization. There's no evidence that gays are less able to control their libidos than are heterosexuals.

More questions remain than can be posed, much less answered, in this space, and Gates may need every minute of the 11 months he has requested to study the issue. Whatever one's personal opinion, the guiding principle should be only what is best for military effectiveness.

"Be all that you can be" was a nice recruiting slogan, but the military really is not about you. And the right to serve belongs to no one.

kathleenparker@washpost.com



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