As I See It: It hasn't been that long ago — about 16 1/2 years — since Bill Clinton's relationship with the Pentagon was permanently warped by his effort to keep a campaign pledge to allow gay men and women to serve openly in the United States Armed Forces.
It hasn't been that long ago — about 16 1/2 years — since Bill Clinton's relationship with the Pentagon was permanently warped by his effort to keep a campaign pledge to allow gay men and women to serve openly in the United States Armed Forces. The outcry from the military and its supporters was such that you'd have thought Clinton had promised to make Hillary a four-star general.
Looking back on all that, it's nothing short of remarkable that the current issue of Joint Force Quarterly, a scholarly publication put out by the Pentagon, includes an essay that calls for ending the ban on allowing gays to serve openly. Written by Air Force Col. Om Prakash, the treatise, which analyzes the odious keep-them-in-the-closet compromise, won the 2009 Secretary of Defense National Security Essay Competition.
That doesn't mean every military officer supports his point of view. Indeed, inclusion of the essay in a Pentagon publication is hardly a stirring endorsement of gay soldiers by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Nor does it suggest that the discriminatory and destructive "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy can be dropped without controversy. Already, certain mossbacks are gearing up for another tirade against gay soldiers, despite Prakash's conclusion that dropping the ban wouldn't have a negative effect on combat readiness.
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, has already prepared her talking points. "Society may have changed, but the need for good order and discipline has not changed," said Donnelly, who opposed allowing gays to serve openly in 1993. (Donnelly's think tank is private; it is not affiliated with the Pentagon.)
But inclusion of the essay in a journal with a Pentagon imprimatur does show that top military officers no longer view the subject of gay soldiers, serving openly, as a non-starter. The battle for full equality for gays and lesbians has come a long way in a relatively short period of time, even in the nation's most tradition-bound institution.
Citing studies that show the financial impact of just 10 years' worth of Don't Ask, Don't Tell as between $190 million and $363 million, Prakash concludes that the policy is "a costly failure." However, he believes the biggest cost lies in the way the policy undermines a fundamental military tenet: integrity. "A law was created that forces a compromise in integrity, conflicts with the American creed of 'equality for all,' places commanders in difficult moral dilemmas and is ultimately more damaging to the unit cohesion its stated purpose is to preserve."
Prakash's essay gives scholarly authority to a conclusion that many military officers had already reached. Last November, 104 retired military leaders signed a letter calling for an end to Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Retired Gen. John Shalikashvili, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, supports dropping the policy. And Colin Powell — who, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Clinton, was among those opposed to allowing gays to serve openly — has called for a review.
While Prakash notes that some soldiers would undoubtedly react poorly to a change in policy — "Disruptive behavior by anyone, homosexual or heterosexual, should not be tolerated," he writes — those cases might turn out to be rare. After all, many soldiers, sailors and Marines are young adults who are less likely to view homosexuality as their elders do. "The average 18-year-old has been around gay people, has seen gay people in popular culture, and they're not this boogeyman," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
With wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's frustrating that the military still enforces a policy that punishes brave men and women who want to put their lives on the line for their country. But the tide is turning. Don't Ask, Don't Tell will be abolished, assigned to the dustbin of history alongside "colored" water fountains and waiting rooms.
Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.