Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

January 25th, 2010

By Tom Carter

Richard Socarides was a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and the senior White House adviser on gay rights from 1997 to 1999.  In yet another fusillade of friendly fire from his own base, Mr. Socarides just took aim at the President in Ask Obama About Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in The Wall Street Journal.

Many people are wondering about President Obama’s willingness, if not his ability, to follow-up on his campaign promises.  Changing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the U.S. military is one of the easiest promises he could keep because he can do it on his own authority.

As Mr. Socarides accurately points out, it doesn’t take an act of Congress to change the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  The Department of Defense can apply the law in a number of ways, to include deciding not to discharge openly gay service members.  Given the sensitivity of the issue, President Obama would certainly be required to publicly support a change in DOD policy, if not actually direct that the policy change be made.

The President would have been wise not to make the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” promise during the campaign if he wasn’t sure he could make good on it.  He may be worried that taking on this issue now, in the midst of so many other policy controversies, is ill-advised.  He also may be remembering the buzz saw Bill Clinton walked into in 1993 when he tried to change policies to permit openly gay service members to remain in the military, which resulted in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as a goofy compromise.  As any mother would say to a son who had erred, “You should have thought about that when you did it.”

The truth is, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” isn’t much different from military policy that was in effect before the Clinton Administration.  Back then, service members who admitted to being gay, or even having “homosexual thoughts,” were subject to discharge.  The reality, however, was that commanders often took a blind eye, choosing not to pursue the issue when there was reason to think that someone under their command might be gay, provided that the service member did not otherwise engage in prohibited behavior.  And by the way, I speak to that reality on the basis of quite a few years in command positions in the Army.

I suppose that in the most perfect military world, any armed force would achieve maximum effectiveness on the Spartan model.  Every soldier and Marine, in particular, would be male, strong, in perfect and extraordinary physical condition, possessed of high intelligence, and dedicated to a harsh life of military service and sacrifice since his early youth.

The Spartan model is nonsense, of course.  The armed forces of every nation are a reflection of the society from which they are drawn.  That’s the way it should be because all qualified citizens should have the opportunity to serve in the common defense of their country.

The U.S. military has long been far ahead of most of the rest of our society in providing equal opportunity for all our citizens who wish to serve (or, in the past, may have been drafted).  There are mental, physical, and other qualifications, of course, but the average citizen can almost always serve if he or she wishes.

When President Truman integrated the military in 1947, there were dire predictions that treating African Americans as all other soldiers were treated would be a disaster.  Didn’t happen.  When women were more thoroughly integrated into most military specialties and the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was abolished in 1978, there were again dire predictions which proved baseless.

Now it’s time for the military to maintain its leadership as the most advanced segment of society in terms of treating everyone equally by granting gay service members the full rights of all others who serve.  Can doing so cause problems, at least initially?  Sure.  There may be issues of who uses what toilet and shower facilities, some straight men may feel threatened, and so on.  But it will work, and the main reason it will work is because the American soldier is open-minded and team-oriented.  We judge our fellow soldiers on their competence, professionalism, and courage.  Everything else comes second.

So let’s get on with it.  The President and the Secretary of Defense should abolish the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy immediately.  Congress can follow along with new legislation, assuming they can get anything at all done.  Then we’ll be where we should be, where every member of the U.S. armed forces is treated equally, all judged on the sole basis of their professionalism and personal conduct.

At this point in our history, we have far more difficult problems to solve.


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3 Responses to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”



  1. larry |

    I agree that this issue pales in comparison to some other issues facing the president. There is however a greater political pawn in play. The republicans wont do anything to offend the conservative wing of their party. The democrats wont do anything because the issue is something to use against the republicans. All the while the gay community has to wait.


  2. Brianna |

    Funny thing is, I don’t think the majority would care that much if it was changed. There’d be some grumbling from the far right, and because I agree with Tom that it wouldn’t actually change anything about how the service operates, that’d probably be the end of it. The moderate right, the independents… basically the people who Obama needs to get back on his side pronto, would either be ambivalent or openly supportive.

    Which makes me suspect that Larry might have a point about how the Dems keep it up there so they can use it against the Republicans. Which is just stupid, because if the Dems have a clear chance to do something about it and pass it up, then the issue won’t work as a tool to bash Republicans with anymore, anyway.


  3. Tom |

    I think you’re both right about politicians on both sides using the issue for their own benefit. That’s a sad commentary about the way things work in Washington.

    Once the DADT policy is changed, and it will be, the fact that it doesn’t cause some kind of uproar in the military will probably surprise some people who opposed the change. One problem that’s easily discernible in the public discussion over this issue is that many people really don’t know what they’re talking about when they hold forth on the military and what soldiers are like. Our country has the most professional and most powerful armed forces in the world, bar none, and the primary reason is the remarkable professionalism, dedication, and team spirit of our soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen. Changing DADT won’t have much of an impact on the military because of that fact.


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