Asking, Telling and Testing the Waters

Is repealing "don’t ask, don’t tell" a wise decision? We're about to find out.

Is allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the United States’ military a wise decision? It appears that we’re about to find out. Civil rights advocates hailed Saturday’s 65-31 vote to end the Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy, while some conservatives and military leaders continue to worry that the move will affect unit cohesion and put lives at risk. However, the deal is not quite sealed yet. The legislation contains an escape clause, and while it’s unlikely that the administration would invoke it, the official end of DADT is still a few months away.

Eight Republicans Senators, led by Susan Collins (R-Maine) crossed party lines to vote with Democrats and Independent Joe Liebermann to end the controversial policy. Over 13,000 men and women have been dismissed from the service since DADT went into effect in 1993. Supporters and opponents alike acknowledge that most of those who were dismissed served honorably. Fox News provided an example in Warren Arbury, a veteran of three combat tours with the Army before he was kicked out for violating DADT in 2008. “It's one step in a very long process of becoming an equal rights citizen,” Arbury said of the repeal. "Even though this is really huge, I look at it as a chink in a very, very long chain."

Changing the policy had become a cause célèbre among leftist politicians and entertainers in recent years. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tweeted Lady Gaga, an outspoken critic of DADT, shortly after the vote was taken, triumphantly telling the flamboyant singer: "We did it! #DADT is a thing of the past.” No doubt Lady Gaga and her fellow members of the Hollywood elite will feel much better about themselves and their country once a person’s sexual preferences are no longer officially a matter of interest or import to the United States Armed Forces high command. Yet, that’s not the issue. Democrats may love the decision, entertainers may celebrate and generals and admirals may or may not agree with it, but the only question that matters is this: how will the men and women on the front lines react?

Anyone who has been engaged in a situation that involves prolonged stress and danger understands how deep and important are the bonds that form between comrades who share the risks. That experience isn’t limited to combat. To a lesser, but still important extent, this kind of bond is a vital part of many civilian professions, like being an oil rigger, a miner or fishing in dangerous waters. Personally speaking, I spent ten years of my career climbing big industrial smokestacks, an experience that gave me a glimpse into the kind of relationships that are forged when danger lurks. But, of course, all of these sorts of jobs pale in comparison when we consider what men and women go through on the front lines. Those of us who have shared a whiff of personal peril in civilian life can only begin to imagine what it is like to serve in a squad rooting out terrorists in a Baghdad slum or chasing the Taliban through the wastelands of Afghanistan.

An important part of the esprit de corps that is so vital when a team is engaged in pursuing a common goal is the seemingly merciless ribbing, rough-hewn humor and endless irreverence that characterizes the relationships between team members. Nothing is out of bounds, nor should any subject be out of bounds. If you’re going to trust your life to the person standing next to you, you naturally expect to understand his or her motivations, strengths, weaknesses, and skills to the nth degree. Trading barbs and sharing stories is a part of that process. Few bonds run as deep and as long as that which forms between men and women who have served in combat and lived to tell the tale.

And so there are only two real questions that matters. Does repealing DADT put those vitally important relationships on the front lines at risk? And, if the answer to that first question is that we’re not sure, is it worth conducting this social experiment with our armed forces now, when they’re engaged in two wars in the Middle East and a belligerent North Korea continues to rattle its nuclear saber? Marine Corps Commandant General James F. Amos said that he would of course implement Congress’s desires, but he didn’t think the risk of repealing DADT was worth it. "So the Marines came back and they said, 'Look, anything that's going to break or potentially break that focus and cause any kind of distraction may have an effect on cohesion,'" he said. "I don't want to permit that opportunity to happen. And I'll tell you why. If you go up to Bethesda Hospital . . . Marines are up there with no legs, none. We've got Marines at Walter Reed with no limbs."

Amos, Army Chief of Staff General George Casey and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz all advised against repealing DADT at this time. Only the Navy, in the form of Chief of Navy Operations Admiral Gary Roughhead and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, supported immediate repeal. The risk of repeal in the Navy, where the absolute authority of a commander is paramount, is perhaps less important than in that of the other branches of the services, where initiative and independent thinking are more encouraged. A discontented destroyer’s crew can still be expected to slavishly follow the commands of their captain, for a ship’s commander is – by definition – lord and master of his vessel. Not so when it comes to boots on the ground. The split second decisions that each member of a Special Forces A Team must make are irrevocably influenced by the way that each feels about fellow members of the team. You have to understand how everyone will react as new threats pop up and you have to know, beyond a doubt, how those individual reactions should translate into the most effective action that you can take.

Repealing DADT presupposes that the young men and women on the front lines will be able to develop these vital, deep relationships even if some of them will have a hard time admitting someone whose ideal of sexual fulfillment is completely alien into this deeply personal circle. No doubt some will be able to negotiate this hurdle, for America in 2010 is a far more tolerant society than it was in 1993. And yet, we are dealing primarily with young people, among whom passions rage, hormones flow and the concept of tolerance is often a wispy ideal. The president and his chief military advisers still have to certify that the repeal will not hinder the ability of our fighting forces, and once that has been done, there is a 60-day waiting period for the military to weigh in again before the repeal goes final. Thus, there is still an opportunity to weigh the advice of General James Amos against the wishes of Lady Gaga. That’s not much of a review process, but surely the brave men and women serving on the front lines deserve every opportunity to ensure that repealing DADT won’t put more lives at risk.