Debating ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

It’s a heated debate: Should Congress go along with the request — recently made by President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that was adopted by Congress and President Bill Clinton in 1993? Should men and women who are openly homosexual be allowed to serve in the U.S. military?

There are strong arguments to be made in favor of repealing the current policy, the strongest being the recommendation made by Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen. These are serious military men, and presumably they would not make such a recommendation if they feared that repealing the policy would harm the American armed forces.

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That President Obama recommends a change in policy doesn’t carry as much weight as the Gates-Mullen recommendation. Obama is the nation’s chief military officer, but he is also the nation’s chief politician; it is almost certain that his recommendation is based more on a political judgment than on a military judgment. Acting as a politician — and, moreover, as a politician whose approval ratings are in trouble — he has to do something dramatic to appease his restive gay-rights supporters, as well as his restive leftwing supporters generally. Getting rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell” may be just the ticket.

Then there is the military’s need for the skills possessed by certain homosexual servicemen and women who have been expelled, especially language skills — for example, in Arabic and Farsi.

Thirdly, there is the argument that, as Americans, homosexuals are entitled to equal treatment with other Americans. If, when it comes to military service, people are not discriminated against because of race or religion, why should they be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation? Even if you believe that homosexual acts are sinful, we don’t require members of the military to be perfect. As long as they can do the job and work well with others, we don’t care much about their personal lives — why should homosexuality be different?

Finally, a point not often made by the pro-repeal side is that there have been great warriors in history who have been homosexual. There was Frederick the Great of Prussia, William III (William of Orange) of England, and Julius Caesar (on at least one occasion). Notwithstanding the premise of a very bad movie from a few years ago, it is doubtful that Alexander the Great was homosexual; but the Sacred Band of Thebes in the fourth century BC, an army unit made up of pairs of homosexual lovers, played a key role under Epaminondas in bringing to an end the hegemony of Sparta.

If there are weighty arguments in favor of getting rid of “dont ask, don’t tell,”of getting rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” there are also weighty arguments in favor of retaining it.

For one, while Gates and Mullen favor its repeal, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has pointed to a petition signed by more than a thousand high-ranking retired military officers calling for retention of the present policy. It makes sense to find out the real opinion of the military brass: Are Gates and Mullen representative of military opinion? Or is their pro-repeal view an aberration, perhaps influenced by their closeness to the commander in chief?

Second, the drive to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been advanced by the gay-rights movement and its fellow travelers of the cultural left. In other words, it has been forwarded by people promoting a morally liberal ideological agenda, not those whose primary concern is to make the military more effective. Ironically, many of the people who most strongly favor having open homosexuals in the military are the very same people who are generally unsympathetic to the military itself. They are people of the political left who typically take a semi-pacifist approach to international affairs — people who rarely encourage their sons or daughters to serve in the military.

Thirdly, what would the effect of repeal be on military recruiting? Will gays and lesbians be drawn disproportionately to the military? If so, families that are strongly patriotic and religiously or morally conservative may become far less likely to encourage their sons and daughters to enter the military. But such families are essential to armed-forces recruitment, especially in the age of an all-volunteer military.

Finally, permitting open homosexuals to serve in the military will be a great victory for the ongoing crusade to confer moral legitimacy on homosexuality — a victory that would be second in importance only to the establishment of same-sex marriage. But to the degree that moral legitimacy is conferred on homosexual behavior, traditional sexual morality is delegitimized. And since traditional sexual morality is based on orthodox Christianity, to delegitimize traditional morality is to delegitimize traditional Christianity. This won’t bother the theologically liberal, who vary little on moral issues from their secular political counterparts. But it will bother — and should bother — Evangelical Protestants and orthodox Catholics.

My own suggestion, if Congress were ever to ask me, is that the military should have a general rule that open homosexuals not be allowed to serve, with judicious exceptions made to the rule in the case of servicemen and women with particularly valuable skills. But half measures aren’t likely to satisfy either side in the debate.


  • David R. Carlin Jr.

    David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” and “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

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