WASHINGTON -- Here they were, back from the front in the war over gays in the military, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn and colleagues who the day before had visited restrooms and sleeping quarters aboard submarines and other ships at the Norfolk Naval Base. Now they were in their committee room listening to the views of retired Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and three active military officers on the subject.
It was no great surprise that all four officers objected to President Clinton's decision to lift the ban on gays in the military, a position shared by Nunn and most of the other committee members who had made the Norfolk tour. The officers had, after all, firsthand experience with the crowded and intimate circumstances under which the American military live at sea, and often on land as well.
They didn't have to accompany Nunn and Co., as a large contingent of reporters and photographers did, to see that submariners sleep in bunks barely high enough to turn around in, eat in shifts in mess halls and use restrooms that are about as private as Yankee Stadium.
The obvious reason that Nunn, ranking committee Republican John Warner and the others paid the visit, with the camera-wielding press corps in tow, was to shore up publicly their case that the Clinton policy is folly. If any members of the committee hadn't seen the crowded living conditions aboard ship numerous times before, they themselves should be put on display at the Smithsonian.
Schwarzkopf was quick to say what he thought about the Clinton ban. The retired hero of the Persian Gulf War said he had trouble with those who advocate "fixing something that's not broken." The military had functioned fine, he said, with the old policy of banning gays from the military but not "ferreting" them out -- discharging them only when their "behavior," such as openly declaring their homosexuality, marrying another gay or engaging in "overt" homosexual activity proved they violated the established military code.
For one of the rare times since his Gulf War triumph, Schwarzkopf was upstaged by a subordinate. Marine Corps Col. Fred Peck disclosed that he has a son who is gay and that he
would advise him to stay out of the military. Furthermore, he said, "we have the right in the military to discriminate" for the good of the service, and the military should do so.
There seemed to be a clear majority on the committee for Nunn's "don't ask, don't tell" approach, which would support Clinton's ban on asking about sexual orientation in tandem with gays in the military agreeing not to come out of the closet, but making conduct disruptive of military morale and discipline grounds for discharge.
But not all the panelists were satisfied with that approach. Peck argued that once gays were "endowed" with the right to serve, the behavior of gay "extremists" would jeopardize military cohesiveness. Guidelines on conduct would have to be "so unambiguous," Schwarzkopf warned, "that we won't be up to our eyeballs in litigation."
Command Master Chief David Borne, a Navy noncommissioned officer, said he had a "rational fear" of lifting the ban, because in the military "we have a walking blood bank." In combat situations especially, he said, "we depend on each other," and "many gay males engage in high-risk behavior that can put others in jeopardy" of contracting the HIV virus.
Warner suggested that Schwarzkopf's testimony had put "the final nail in the coffin" of Clinton's lifting of the ban as far as Congress is concerned, but he offered a nail of his own, just in case. He said he is introducing a bill that would enable military personnel to quit the services without jeopardy to their benefits if the ban remained.
Schwarzkopf said he would oppose such a step, simply because basic training is too costly to permit it and a rush of resignations would hurt military organization. A lot of personnel will get out on their own, he suggested, without that kind of invitation.
With Clinton committed to lifting the ban, these hearings underscore the political risk he is undertaking. Maybe Nunn thinks he can pressure this president who never served in uniform, in cramped quarters or anywhere else, into backing off.