President Obama Should Dispense with 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

James F. Vesely

With the Obama administration upon us, Democrats and Republicans can remedy one of the worst decisions of the presidency of Bill Clinton. End the illogical "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prevents openly gay and lesbian citizens from serving in our armed forces.

In what seems a century ago, the debate over gays in the military was strangely linked to things such as proximity of bunk space, the idea of "unit cohesion" and other arcane arguments, often made by civilians in political power.

Gays have served in the military - hundreds of thousands, probably - as the nation went to war and cold peace in the previous century. Recognizing this is a new world, about 100 retired admirals and generals called for repeal of the policy as recently as November.

According to a wire report, the flag officers wrote: "As is the case of Great Britain, Israel and other nations that allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, our service members are professionals who are able to work together effectively despite differences in race, gender, religion and sexuality."

Indeed, the U.S. military must be seen as one of the best meritocracies in the world, desegregating in the late 1940s and, in the 1980s, admitting women to a variety of high positions, from intelligence commands to captaining ships and aircraft.

Female officers I've met at Fort Lewis, for example, wear parachutist's wings - something I did not think possible 40 years ago - and calmly talk about a career inside the military that will occupy their adult lives. These are not casual soldiers.

When President Richard Nixon ended the draft in the 1970s, everything changed for America's armed forces. There was competition for recruits, the solidifying of a cadre of professionals and a downside: the beginning of an arm's length distance between civilian life and that of the career military.


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Yet the idea of openly homosexual citizens in uniform is not as flammable as it once was. Last summer, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed a dramatic drop in people's opposition to gay service members. Those in favor numbered 44 percent in 1993, up to 62 percent in 2001 and 75 percent in 2008.

In much of American life, especially among a generation now in their 20s, the open presence of gays and lesbians now elicits a question: "So what?"

There are redoubts in the military that continue to worry about the impact of changing the rule, but "don't ask, don't tell" is itself a barrier to the honesty and camaraderie of the best military units.

The Army I was in was a place where enlisted soldiers were required to match the task to the rules and it made no difference who sat beside you as the doors opened for the jump. I can't see how that has changed with the admission of women, African Americans, Asian and Latino refugees or Muslim clerics to the military family.

There's a good chance today's incoherent policy will go away under Obama and a changing Congress. The test comes with personal behavior, just as it has for anyone who pledges himself or herself to duty.

Odd that in the old world of the paratrooper, the name for those who didn't jump from airplanes was "straight-leg," for the fact they could not blouse their boots. "Straight" may have other connotations today, but the Army is always the Army and it can find a way to take all comers and make them into soldiers.


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James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times

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