The increasing incoherence of the military's gay exclusion policy.

Military analysis.
March 13 2007 6:07 PM

Don't Ask

The increasing incoherence of the military's gay exclusion policy.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

For years, the Pentagon has defended its ban on gays and lesbians by repeating the mantra that "homosexuality is incompatible with military service." But as evidence has mounted that gays serve openly in dozens of countries including the United States without harming unit cohesion, the military has grown increasingly incoherent in defending the "don't ask, don't tell" gay exclusion.

For some years, the military has been trying to pass the buck back to Congress, suggesting the gay ban isn't the fault of the Pentagon, which merely "implements a federal law" from 1993, as obligated. But in recent weeks, the military has unveiled several new defenses of the gay ban. Each of them is bizarre, and as a group they make no sense at all.

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Yesterday, Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Chicago Tribune (registration required) that open gays should not serve in the military because homosexuality is "immoral." Pace said, "I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts." He said he did not think the military was "well served by a policy that says it is OK to be immoral in any way" and compared homosexual conduct to adultery. Today, Pace retreated from his comments, saying, "I should have focused more on my support of the policy and less on my personal moral views."

David Chu's letter to Sen. Ron Wyden. Click image to expand.
Chu letter to Wyden

Even so, Pace's frank acknowledgement that his opposition to gay service is moral signals a departure from the carefully constructed "effectiveness" argument that the military used for more than a decade. In 1993, when military leaders developed a strategy to prevent President Clinton from lifting the gay ban, some members met with leaders of the religious right, who urged them to oppose gay service on moral grounds. But Colin Powell and other senior officials decided it would be more effective to resist the change on the grounds of military effectiveness. The "unit cohesion" argument was born of this conversation, which argues that straight soldiers dislike gays so much that unit cohesion would suffer if known gays were allowed to serve. Pace was also contradicting the Pentagon's own brand new justification for leaving the ban in place. According to the military, even talking about gays in the military will undermine the war on terror. In a February letter to Sen. Ron Wyden, Undersecretary of Defense David Chu said that a "national debate" on lifting the gay ban, "with the accompanying divisiveness and turbulence across our country, will compound the burden of the war." As a result of this conclusion, he "question[s] the wisdom of advocating a change."

This is an astonishing claim for Chu to make—that not only must gays conceal their homosexuality to protect unit cohesion, but the entire country must avoid discussing homosexuality or else it will undermine the war effort. By this reasoning, we should ban discussion of whether to increase troops in Iraq and prohibit an inquiry into conditions at Walter Reed.

It's also evidence that the military leadership, which was out of step with public opinion on gay soldiers even in 1993, has remained stuck in a bygone era. Polls show that large majorities of the American public now favor openly gay service, including conservatives, Republicans, and churchgoers. Even within the military itself, majorities say they are "personally comfortable" with gay people. For the first time, a majority of junior enlisted personnel support letting gays serve openly. Perhaps this is what prompted Pace's predecessor, Gen. John Shalikashvili, to call in January for ending the gay ban.

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