The landslide majority of Americans who now support the concept of gays serving openly in the military - 69 percent of the public, according to Gallup - would be well advised to tamp down any expectations of speedy reform.
Granted, President Obama did vow during his State of the Union speech to work this year with Congress and the Pentagon to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" law that requires gay servicepeople to hide their true selves. And, granted, Pentagon chief Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs chairman Michael Mullen are expected to announce - at a Senate hearing today - that they're taking the first substantive steps toward a future in which gays and straights will be able to serve together without the caveat of the closet. And, granted, there's considerable support in Congress (at least on the Democratic side) for repealing DADT, particularly at a time when the strained military can ill afford to lose "mission critical" people whose sole infraction was that they were outed for who they really were.
But I sense that this process to put America in sync with virtually all our major allies (24 nations, including Britain and Israel, allow gays to serve openly) will move with all deliberate speed (to borrow the old Supreme Court phrase) - that is to say, with all the speed of a snail moving through mud.
Gates and Mullen are expected today to announce that they will appoint a couple people to oversee a group that will draw up plans for a full integration of the armed forces. The planning phase alone could take at least a year (should there be rules barring public displays of affection? should there be separate-but-equal barracks? what about ports of call in countries to ban homosexuality? should the brass require sensitivity training for recalcitrant soldiers? should military benefits be paid to gay spouses?). Which means that the actual implementation could take many more years - just as the full racial integration of the armed forces, first announced in 1948, was not virtually completed until 1954.
And all this assumes that Congress will cooperate by repealing DADT. We'll have to see about that. Those folks are so dysfunctional that they'd probably drag their feet at the prospect of passing a bipartisan resolution in praise of apple pie. A smattering of key Democrats (such as House Armed Service Committee chairman Ike Skelton) want gay servicepeople to stay in the closet, and virtually the entire Republican caucus is vowing to block any legislative push for open service (quelle surprise!).
Conservative icon Barry Goldwater, the late Arizona senator, once said: "You don't have to be straight to be in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight." But that's not good enough for fellow Arizonian John McCain, the former "maverick" who, in his latest incarnation, has continued to sell off pieces of his soul. Back in 2006, McCain said that if America's top military officials were to endorse a change in the policies concerning gay servicepeople, "then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it, because those leaders in the military are the ones we give the responsibility to." But last week McCain said: "This successful (stay in the closet) policy has been in effect for over 15 years, and it is well understood and predominantly supported by our military at all levels. At a time when our armed forces are fighting and sacrificing on the battlefield, now is not the time to abandon the policy."
Actually, McCain has it backwards. At a time when our armed forces are strained by the effort of fighting two wars and a twilight struggle against terrorism, it's tough to justify a policy which requires that outed gays be forcibly discharged. The official stats say that 13,500 service members have been kicked out of the military since DADT was enacted in 1993; taxpayers have spent roughly $400 million to process those discharges. Hundreds of those dischargees have been Arab linguists, at a time when we need those specialists most. A 2005 General Accounting Office report lists hundreds of other "mission critical" personnel, including infantrymen, doctors, nurses, mechanics, and intelligence analysts.
No wonder the Joint Force Quarterly - a military journal published for the Joint Chiefs of Staff - recently concluded in an essay that DADT was a failure, that it was "costly both in personnel and treasure. In an attempt to allow homosexual Servicemembers to serve quietly, 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." Indeed, "there's no evidence showing that open service would imperil morale or unit cohesion."
No wonder Gen. John Shalikashvili, the former Joint Chiefs chairman, supports DADT repeal and open service. No wonder that the '09 Gallup poll reported 69 percent support for open service - a majority share that has grown since mid-decade, fueled by big gains among conservatives (58 percent of whom now favor open service) and weekly churchgoers (60 percent).
Not that any of this would necessarily persuade the Senate Republicans to forego a filibuster if and when the repeal vote is finally at hand. But they'd be well advised to read the online commentary by Capt. Tim Hsia, an active duty Army infantry captain. Hsia is quite upset about a heavily-decorated buddy - two tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan - who's getting kicked out of the Army because his sexual orientation became known. Writing last Wednesday on a New York Times blog, Hsia said of his friend, "I always felt that this individual - who has a stellar military record - was sure to achieve every imaginable success in terms of rank and position. I know other soldiers felt the same."
Prior to his friend's troubles, Hsia said he "had no convictions one way or the other about DADT. It was a nonfactor in my life. But seeing firsthand a capable soldier be forced out of the military, when the Army struggles with retaining junior to mid-level officers, seems to fly in the face of logic. When competent professionals are being forced to leave the service because of their sexual orientation, it is an enormous waste of government resources."
And aren't we all supposed to loathe government waste?