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"Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Some thoughts and critiques.

December 2010

What ought to strike us about the recent public "debate" about the "DADT" policy is that it completely lacked substance. The reason this does not strike us is that this has become our norm: all our public debate lacks substance. Some of the missing substance supplied.
President Obama often sees things very clearly. Most idealists do. He was happy this week to sign the repeal of the much-maligned "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law, which he cast as a matter of basic civil liberty. (By the way, it ought simply to be known as the "Don't Tell" law: the military does not ask about anyone's sexual orientation.) It was widely reported, by a too-compliant press, that the existing law – which requires dismissal from the U.S. armed services of anyone who announces him- or her-self as a homosexual – has been the policy of the United States for seventeen years. True, it became law in 1993, but the papers might have mentioned that dismissing known homosexuals from the military services was also U.S. policy before it became law. Indeed, it has always been U.S. policy. The Congress and the President did not overturn a seventeen year old policy, but a 200+ year old policy.

So what? you may say. Our understanding of civil rights has advanced; we see wrongs today that were hidden from our forefathers. Maybe. Or it may be that the DADT policy has remained in effect so long because it has served actual, valid purposes. It's hard to know, because our media did not explain or discuss the reasons for the policy, being caught up in the President's enthusiasm for making a civil rights coup, and perhaps matching his level of grasp of military needs, which unfortunately appears to be elementary.

The relationship between a nation's democracy on the one hand, and its military forces – designed to protect and preserve that democracy – on the other hand, is tricky and carries a seeming disjunction. As I recall from my Naval Officer training, it was Adm. John Paul Jones who said that those who protect the nation's freedom must themselves give up much of that freedom. In other words, the military is not a democracy, and those who serve in it give up some of the civil rights they had as civilians. (Indeed, "civil rights" suggests "rights of civilians," and that is the actual meaning.) In the military, soldiers and sailors do not, for example, have the same level of freedom of speech or of association and assembly. They do not have the right to choose their job. And there is no right to serve in the military. The military cannot be forced to make provision for the blind and the wheelchair-bound in the infantry – any "right" to so serve must be trumped by the military's need for effectiveness, if we are to have a useful military force. If my presence in the military is disruptive, I may be dismissed from the service. Military service is and has to be authoritarian. The lives of soldiers and sailors are regulated and ordered toward a single goal: the most effective defense of the nation. Everything else must take a back seat to that goal, including the expectation of rights. So that we as civilians may be at liberty to occupy ourselves with exercising our rights, our soldiers and sailors are required to attend to duty.

Mr. Obama is stepping on a slippery slope with his insistence that soldiers' "civil rights" should take precedence over military effectiveness. I dare doubt that the President has given much thought to which other "rights" may subsequently be demanded in the services. Certainly, homosexual marriage of soldiers will be on the agenda, and he is likely to accede to that, whatever objections he hears from the services. (In the past weeks Mr. Obama rejected the service chiefs' objections to the repeal of the "DADT" policy, preferring the support of his two top personal military advisors, Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen, for his pre-determined position.) And polygamous marriage in the military may be next, after it has become accepted in civil society, which it soon will be, once homosexual marriage is accepted. (Don't doubt it – it has exactly the same argument as "gay marriage" – check this previous BRJ essay.)

I don't personally have any objection in principle to homosexuals serving in the military, nor do I believe that the service chiefs who testified against the repeal have any. There is no reason to believe that heterosexuals can fight or operate any more effectively than homosexuals. This is not the issue. It is not a matter of prejudice, though that accusation is naturally easier to make than to argue the actual substance of the issue. The difficulties, rather, lie entirely in the practical areas of personnel relations and procedures, and it is these difficulties which have been completely swept under the rug by the media in covering this matter. Not that this is surprising; the media have been doing little but "keeping score" and searching out scandals in their coverage of any issue for some years now. So, to supply some of what has been missing, here are two significant issues, as I see them. One has to do with privacy and use of space, one with effective operation and use of staff. If these issues are overcome, I do not believe the services will have any objection to openly homosexual members serving. But until they are overcome, their objections will be justified.

Privacy and Space.
This issue revolves around space for sleeping, showering, and toilet functions. It is a given in our society that we do not mix the sexes in the same space for these functions. The military does not have women and men sharing sleeping quarters, showers, or toilets. We readily understand the reason for this: in such situations, mixing persons who may be one another's object of sexual attraction and desire leads to unwanted results, such as ogling, unwelcome sexual advances, even on-the-spot sexual encounters. This is especially the case where the parties involved are youths, as in the military services. We may also add the natural sexual tension that comes from being on deployment (on a ship, for example) for weeks or months at a time, away from "social" contacts. On Navy ships space is at a premium, and with the introduction of women on some ships, space alterations had to be made that required new use of space intended and previously used for other needs. In some cases, common shower spaces may have been scheduled separately for the two sexes, but dedicated sleeping and toilet spaces have needed to be constructed. Nonetheless, this has been achieved on some ships. On Army posts the issue is often simple to solve with new construction, and has not been considered a problem, though the situation in the field can be tricky. But to date the two sexes have largely been accommodated in the military, though with an increase in problems related to sexual activity, such as pregnancies.

But when you add known homosexual sailors or soldiers to the mix, some difficult problems crop up: With whom do you berth a (male) homosexual sailor? Not with the women, for he's male. Not with the men, for they're his announced erotic interests. And clearly not with other homosexuals, for the same reasons. Same problem in the Navy's community showers and multi-stall toilets. Do you give homosexuals individual rooms and facilities (something otherwise available only to senior officers), while others sleep, shower, etc together? That would hardly be popular. Giving homosexuals only non-deployment assignments (i.e., shore duty), where they live at home, would be equally unpopular and unfair, since these deployments are sought after and serve as interludes for the sailors between sea duties. If you think this is a constructed problem – no, it's a genuine problem. The Captain can't force other sailors to sleep and shower with someone who has announced his erotic interest in them. That would be a violation of their rights. Put yourself in the Captain's place – what you would do? You may say that there are many homosexuals in the services today, sleeping and showering with the "straights". That's true, and for the most part this is not causing a problem. The reason is that the reaction of their mates depends on knowledge of their sexual predilection. Once you know or observe that the fellow next to you in the shower has a particular interest in your private parts, discomfort sets in. And that is why the policy has been "Don't tell." To sum up, homosexuals may serve in the military under current policy, but once they announce their erotic interest in the sex that they're showering and sleeping with, a disruptive problem arises which the military resolves by releasing the individual.

Operations and staff use.
Another, less decisive, reason for the DADT policy has to do both with the safety of the known homosexual persons, and the staff requirement for policing that would likely result from having openly homosexual soldiers or sailors in the squad. Although many of our soldiers have had a liberal and broadminded upbringing, that is not uniformly the case. A portion of our enlisted corps represents the rougher, street-wise environment where "queers" are not appreciated, are commonly harrassed, and frankly are not safe. Introduction of acknowledged homosexuals into the services will require beefing up the military police for their safety and to maintain order. This was the concern of the service chiefs who testified against revocation of the DADT policy. They believe that any staffing advantage that might come from having access to additional homosexual personnel would be offset by the need for more resources expended on order issues, and that the result would not be a more effective military force. They testified that unit cohesion and absence of personnel conflict is a key to the teamwork necessary for smooth military functioning. They also believe that the effectiveness of the military must take precedence over any individual "right" to serve in the military.

Perhaps these issues can be resolved without degrading military unit cohesion, and perhaps the Navy can find a solution to the space and berthing problem. If not, any decision to introduce a potentially disruptive element, such as by a reversal of the long-standing "Don't Tell" policy, is likely to have a negative effect on military operations and readiness.

© 2010 H. Paul Lillebo

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