Commentary: Getting past 'Don't ask, don't tell'

In an appearance before Congress last week, the Pentagon's top two officials called for an end to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy barring gays and lesbians from serving openly.

Some of the subsequent commentary had an impatient, what's-the-big-deal, get-on-with-it tone, and some trotted out the familiar parallel with President Truman's 1948 order to integrate the armed forces.

Racial integration didn't undermine unit cohesion, the argument ran. Allowing gays to serve openly shouldn't be a problem either. I agree it's time to scrap "don't ask, don't tell," but the Pentagon is entitled to proceed with caution.

Racial integration didn't involve the volatile element of sexual tension. To take an example from a column I wrote on this subject several years ago, a pattern of favoritism among top non-commissioned officers in an infantry company will be seen in an entirely different light if those involved are openly gay.

Still, the knottiest issues probably won't be found at the unit level. There are rules to deal with misconduct and disciplinary problems.

Among the toughest topics will be areas such as family life and family services. As former Naval intelligence officer J.E. Dyer wrote on Commentary magazine's "Contentions" blog, "Family life on military bases can't help absorbing the impact of openly acknowledged gay romance, which will play out on sports fields, in base theaters, in recreation facilities and at the exchanges and commissaries."

The uniformed military, Dyer wrote, must also wrestle with whether "eligibility for promotion or command will be contingent on explicit support for homosexuality."

For example, will 20-year combat veterans be expected to endorse observations such as "Gay Pride Month," as do employees at, say, the State Department?

Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations recalled discussing the issue with a Special Forces team in the field. He was struck by the unanimity of opposition to lifting "don't ask, don't tell."

The team members, he wrote, were "horrified at the thought of gays in their ranks. This may be rank prejudice, and perhaps the result of ignorance, since there are already probably some gays in their midst. But the attitude still exists and higher authority can tamper with the policy only at the risk of causing a drop in morale."

That risk, however, is not insurmountable.

A 1993 Rand study concluded that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly was feasible, as long as the top brass was solidly behind it. Judging by Mullen’s full-throated endorsement last week, that seems a good bet.

At least 24 countries, some of which are serving in the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, permit openly gay troops. Britain took the step a decade ago, and none of the worries about unit cohesion, bullying or disruption came to fruition.

British defense officials don't keep track of how many openly gay and lesbian troops are now serving, The New York Times reported. The number who have come out is relatively low.

Tom Ryan of Kansas City, a West Point graduate, a 24-year infantry veteran, and a Star Editorial Board reader adviser, said he's confident the military can work through the adjustment process.

"It's been a long time coming and people just want to get on with it," he said. "There are a lot of talented people out there who would do a good job."

In politics, there's a certain moment when an idea debated for years reaches a sort of critical mass and approaches the threshold of approval. Dropping the bar against gays and lesbians serving openly fits that description: It's an "idea whose time has come."