In the eyes of the military Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is not a gay issue, a witch hunt, a civil rights or equality issue. Instead, it’s a social issue with far reaching organizational implications. Truth be told, the armed forces don’t care any more about a service member’s sexual orientation than they do about what religion they practice or the color of their skin. As in every other enterprise with critical responsibilities and deep investment in personnel, the focus is on the quality and maturity of the individual, how they do their job, and what their value is to the mission. Period.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) was an inept, ill conceived policy from day one. Even the name implies an undignified sense of “let’s just pretend”. The confused 1993 legislation came as the first act of a politically astute, but inexperienced Commander in Chief that never took the time to understand what made the military tick. As recently as September 2010, Bill Clinton stated in a CBS interview that he regretted signing the legislation and blamed it’s subsequent fallout on Colin Powell, Congress, and the military for not delivering the results ‘he’ was promised. In actuality, the military has executed their DADT orders exactly as they were commissioned.
Ironically, that same year, Israel made the decision to stop making sexual orientation an issue of eligibility in the IDF (Israeli Defense Force). In typical Israeli abruptness, they made a social statement; ‘If you are a citizen of Israel that meets the physical criteria, you will serve the country, work, and live by our rules during the time you wear the uniform….. any questions? By not making it an issue, it never became one. One could say it has worked out pretty well for them.
Timing is everything however and in 1993 American society and the Pentagon were not ready to follow Israel’s lead even though historically (during peacetime) it would have been an opportune time to administrate such a measure. Now our culture says they’re ready but the military is fully engaged in a global war where any significant social changes to their infrastructure compound an already unwieldy agenda.
Make no mistake; changing military regulations with regard to openly gay service members in the US socio-military structure is a very big deal. Politically enacting legislation and declaring social victory was the easy part. Repealing DADT will doubtless lay the ground work for a whole new set of issues which will fall into the laps of leadership at the unit level.
I remain ambivalent about its passage for two reasons; 1.) I believe it was a cultural inevitability and, 2.) I prefer not to make sexual preference an issue – anywhere. With that said, I will be uneasy during the early days of this new chapter, much as I was when the Navy first allowed women in combat roles on extended shipboard deployments. The law of unintended consequences has a way of creeping in where acts of good intentions fall short.
Activists and politicians fail to realize that our military bases and ships are not social laboratories. When the politicians insisted that the Navy assign female sailors on ships for extended deployments they were miffed when an inordinate number of pregnancies were reported from those ships. How could this happen when they had such good intentions for gender equality?
Prior to my retirement as a Navy officer and pilot serving on various aircraft carriers, I remember there were times when I wondered privately about the sexual orientation of some of the sailors that worked for me. It never mattered because they were all good and capable men. I needed them, their skill and their loyalty. What they did after they left the hangar was of only indirect concern to me. No good military leader knowingly engages in a witch hunt with the purpose of disciplining someone in his command for being ‘human‘, especially when that recruit has demonstrated those qualities necessary for success in the mission and the unit in which they serve. I cared about their well-being and not about who they were going home to. But, ‘going home to’ is the key phrase which makes our situation far more complex than Israel’s.
When gay Israeli soldiers go home, for the most part they go … home. Typically they do not deploy for months at a time. When U.S. soldiers, sailors, and Marines go home – they return to barracks, tents or cramped shipboard berthing spaces. Their life, professional and social, is one deployment after another in close quarters with the same sex. There is little space and even less privacy to be discrete whether a hetero or homosexual. There are no college style coed living arrangements where hanging a necktie on the door knob means ‘I’m busy, come back later’.
The days when military leaders only had to deal with the spectrum of male/female fraternization problems is a thing of the past. Every unit’s challenges will now be compounded by like issues that same sex living quarters will undoubtedly present. Human nature being what it is, in the new post-DADT era the potential for social discipline and associated morale problems will logically increase.
Sooner or later the Pentagon was going to catch up with the evolving attitudes of our culture. Any action to repeal or alter DADT has always been in the hands of Congress, not the military. JCS Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen has been candid about his personal preference for a repeal of DADT but explicit in saying that it is up to the politicians to initiate the legislation. It is his duty to become the authority for it’s compliance. His marching orders to military leadership will be the administration, promulgation, and enforcement of this shift within military culture along with the myriad of details and likely unintended consequences that will accompany it.
Contrary to the favorable polling data that has been reported in the media there remains significant push-back from the front lines. There will likely be confusion, confrontation, and instances of misinterpretation about the limits of the new rules. Unit leaders will assume a monumental social task that will directly impact the operational duties already on their plate. Those who have never experienced the uniqueness of life in the military can never quite appreciate this undertaking.
The success of this new era will depend largely on the effectiveness of military leadership to communicate the broad scope of their expectations. The rest will fall at the feet of those granted their new sense of equality and freedom as they are bound to abide by all the existing regulations and restrictions currently placed on heterosexuals.
The military will get it right; they usually do. Hopefully they will take their new orders with an Israeli air of abruptness ….. Any questions?