Opponents of the Obama administration's plan to scrap the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise by which gay men and women are allowed to serve in the military, so long as nobody finds out they are gay, say that with an all-volunteer force stretched thin by two wars, this is no time to rock the boat. They're wrong. Precisely because the military needs all the manpower -- and woman power -- it can get, now is the time to end one of President Bill Clinton's least satisfying triangulations, a discriminatory and unjust policy that never made much sense.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that he will appoint a high-level commission to study how the Pentagon can transition to allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. The commission plans to survey top commanders, troops in the field and military families to determine their views on gays in the services and to review how the change would affect Pentagon policy on matters such as whether to provide benefits to domestic partners of gay servicemen, or how to handle the objections of a straight soldier who refuses to bunk with a gay comrade.
Those who back the current law argue that letting gays serve openly would damage morale and unit cohesion. But other countries that have allowed gays to serve openly in their armed forces found that integrating gays into combat units does not harm their military effectiveness.
America's armed forces have gone through these arguments before, notably over the question of whether African-Americans should be eligible for miliary service. At the beginning of the Civil War, blacks were barred from participating in combat operations on the Union side, but as losses mounted, the federal government was forced to enlist more than 200,000 black servicemen. Similar resistance to black troops was heard during both world wars, but in both cases the military found black troops not only were vital but that the presence of black units like the famed Tuskegee Airmen, who flew fighter escort missions on bombing raids over Europe, increased group morale.
That history makes the controversy over allowing gays to serve in the military seem like a bizarre anachronism at a time when the acceptance of gay civil rights has moved to the point where the nation is debating whether gays should be able to marry, not just whether they should hold any job they want.
Mr. Gates told Congress the Pentagon will immediately begin relaxing enforcement of don't ask, don't tell, which has led to the court-martial of 13,000 men and women, many of them translators whom the Army badly needs. The decision to only expel gays who openly declare their sexual orientation, rather than investigating claims made by third parties, is a good first step. One of the most counterproductive results of the current policy is the extent to which it harms national security by providing fodder for gay servicemen and women to be blackmailed.
Removing the threat that a soldier could be outed lessens the climate of fear for gays in the military, but it doesn't afford them equality and justice, and the idea that the Pentagon could still take up to a year to figure out a way to reverse the policy is frustrating. Congress and the Obama administration must place limits on the review process so the scattered elements of the military that still resist this change can't use it to perpetuate a de facto ban. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban make no distinctions based on whether our soldiers are straight or gay, and neither should the country that sends them into harm's way.
Go serve some active duty time in the military and then form a valid opinion. You just might find out that the military has better things to do than to be on the cutting edge of every social experiment that the politically correct zealots wish to implement.
This isn't "cutting edge," pal. This is decades overdue. I don't have to have served in the military to see discrimination.