It's been 17 years since Congress enacted the law known as "don't ask, don't tell," and the Senate finally will vote on its repeal this week. Public figures from Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Lady Gaga have said it's time for the policy to go. A federal judge in California weighed in this month as well, finding that the law undermines unit cohesion, wastes money and leads to a loss of crucial military talent. It is also patently unfair and, according to the court, unconstitutional. On the long path to regulations that treat all troops equally, a number of myths have cropped up surrounding the law.
Myth No. 1: "Don't ask, don't tell" was created to promote unit cohesion and military readiness.
"Don't ask, don't tell" has never had anything to do with those goals. In 1993, President Clinton tried to compel the Pentagon to eliminate the ban on gays in the military. The Pentagon formed a working group to figure out how to respond, and admirals and generals in that group, which ultimately helped create "don't ask, don't tell," acknowledged to historian Nathaniel Frank that the policy was "based on nothing."
But that is not the full story. According to historian Anne Loveland, the architects of "don't ask, don't tell" knew they could not argue that the law should be based on their personal morality, so they used the unit cohesion argument instead. In her work on evangelical chaplains in the military, Loveland discovered a behind-the-scenes debate as the policy took shape in 1992-93. Though the chaplains and evangelical groups wanted to present a case that gays and lesbians are abominations, polls showed that most of the public didn't share their moral concerns; they knew they would have a better chance if they talked about military necessity.
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As recently as 2007, then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace was asked why the military still had a ban on gays, and he said he believed that "don't ask, don't tell" was necessary because homosexual conduct is immoral. He later clarified that he was stating his "personal moral views" and that he should have stuck to personnel issues. His comments spurred a group of retired generals and admirals to urge the repeal of the policy. But the problem really wasn't that Pace spoke out of turn. It was that he told the truth about a rationale that was supposed to remain unspoken.
Myth No. 2: Repealing "don't ask, don't tell" will be complicated.
Opponents of repeal are trying to depict the transition to an inclusive policy as a fragile and complicated process. The Center for Military Readiness, a nonprofit organization whose president supports "don't ask, don't tell," claims that lifting the ban will lead to logistical headaches over housing, benefits and nondiscrimination policies. This echoes the obstructionism of former Sen. Sam Nunn, who on the Senate floor in 1993 asked more than 40 "thorny questions" that gay rights advocates would have to answer before he would support allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly. (One particularly memorable example: What would happen if a gay soldier brought a partner to a military ball?)
But the shift to an inclusive policy is not rocket science. Research by the Rand Corp. shows that the Pentagon needs just three things to ensure a smooth transition: The military must have a standard of nondiscrimination that mandates equal treatment for everyone. There must be a single code of conduct that applies equally to gays and straights and does not mention sexual orientation. And military leaders at all levels must show their support for the policy.
All of these steps are simple, which is why the militaries of Britain, Israel, Canada and other U.S. allies have had such an easy time getting rid of their bans. At a recent summit at the Brookings Institution, Canadian Lt. Gen. Walter Semianiw said, "There has been no impact to reflect on operational effectiveness by having men and women of any sexual orientation fighting together."
Myth No. 3: The integration of women and African-Americans into the military offers useful comparisons.
The debates over gays, women and blacks in the military seem quite similar in many regards. Just as some people claimed that white enlisted personnel would not follow black officers, for example, others say that straight troops will not follow gay commanders.
Yet it makes little sense to compare the current situation to the previous integration of women and racial minorities. Operationally, the end of "don't ask, don't tell" will be a cakewalk compared with racial and gender integration, which took many years and faced huge logistical obstacles. In this case, a majority of troops already say that they know or suspect that they know gay peers and are comfortable serving with them.
Symbolically, the comparison is wrong as well: It conflates homophobia, racism and sexism, which are distinct phenomena.
Myth No. 4: The troops oppose repealing "don't ask, don't tell."
It is true that when asked their policy preferences, more troops say they favor "don't ask, don't tell" than allowing gays to serve openly. But there are several caveats: First, the margin is small, and a large number of troops say they have no opinion. Typically, polls find that about 40 percent of troops prefer "don't ask, don't tell"; 30 percent prefer open service; and 30 percent have no opinion. Second, the vast majority of troops say they are comfortable working with gays and lesbians. Third, even among those who have an opinion, very few feel strongly about it.
Military leaders have expressed their support for repealing "don't ask, don't tell" as well. Mullen has said that eliminating the policy "would be the right thing to do," and his view is reflected, in large part, in the opinions of the troops. I have made more than 25 visits to service academies and military universities over the past decade, and I have noticed a remarkable shift. Among those gays and lesbians who are out to their units, very few are encountering problems these days. The gay troops who experience the most difficulties are the ones who remain in the closet. Their peers know they are hiding something, and that perception of secrecy does undermine cohesion.
Myth No. 5: "Don't ask, don't tell" is a losing issue politically.
More than a dozen polls in the past five years have found that roughly two-thirds of the public supports repeal. Majorities of regular churchgoers and Republicans now support allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly. The political risk for the Obama administration and the Democrats is in not following through on their pledge to repeal the policy.
Some people believe that Clinton tried to push the country too far to the left when it came to gays in the military. But Clinton's key mistake was allowing himself to get pushed around. That is why he lost the respect of the military and its supporters.