WASHINGTON — Bucking the Pentagon's top leaders, the chiefs of the Army and Marines urged Congress on Friday not to allow openly gay people to serve in the military, at least not while troops are at war in Afghanistan.
The generals publicly rebutted their own bosses and the White House, arguing that it is too risky to change the policy now. That gave political ammunition to congressional Republicans trying to retain the ban known as "don't ask, don't tell."
"It's important that we're clear about the military risks," said Gen. George Casey, the Army's top officer. "Repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' would be a major cultural and policy change in the middle of a war."
President Obama has promised to jettison a policy he says is discriminatory, and asked Congress to repeal the 17-year-old law this year. Chances of that were slim to begin with, and they sank lower after Friday's blunt assessment that lifting the ban would tear the close bonds of the foxhole. Democrats have promised a vote this month.
Both Casey and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos undercut Defense Secretary Robert Gates' claim that the change is not too dangerous. Their views are the most closely watched because the Army and Marines are doing most of the fighting in Afghanistan, and did the same in Iraq.
The generals acknowledged that openly gay service was probably inevitable and they played down suggestions that recruiting would drop or large numbers of soldiers would resign when it happens.
But they warned of social upheaval among the tight units that live and fight side by side for months at a time on the front lines. Lifting the ban will not be as easy or safe as a Pentagon study released this week suggests, the generals said.
"My suspicions are that the law will be repealed" eventually, Amos told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "All I'm asking is the opportunity to do that at a time and choosing when my Marines are not singularly tightly focused on what they're doing in a very deadly environment."
The Marines are the most uncomfortable with the idea of lifting the ban, according to the Pentagon study that polled each service.