‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ should end now


On Tuesday, the Defense Department unveiled its
“don’t ask, don’t tell” reform plan. The strategy is simple: slow
progress toward ending a policy, and repealing a law, that doesn’t work.

The idea is to modify enforcement of “don’t ask,
don’t tell” by, among other measures, disallowing certain third-party
“outings” from being used against gay troops. New rules may also
require that a two-star officer approve any discharge. Depending on how
they’re applied, these changes could mean the beginning of officially
tolerated service by known gays and lesbians. In some cases, gay troops
could be honest with their peers, who could not rat them out to a

But a failed policy will still be in place; 66,000
gay, lesbian and bisexual troops will continue to serve in fear of
needless discharge, and the U.S. could still be forced to fire
soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines it can ill afford to lose.

The strategy for dealing with that reality? A year
of further study. The problem is, the issue has been studied for half a
century. “Further study” is nothing but a delaying tactic. It only
gives political obstructionists and moral opponents of equality for
gays the chance to sow doubt and fear in an effort to derail reform.

According to poll data, most Americans agree that
“don’t ask, don’t tell” is unjust and should end. But many people don’t
grasp that the 17-year-old policy is not just unfair, it is a colossal
failure that harms military “cohesion and readiness,” the very thing it
is supposed to protect. The insistence by opponents of reform, such as John McCain, that the policy is a “success,” that it is “working well,” reflects a profound detachment from the situation on the ground.

For starters, two-thirds of military members already
know or suspect that there are gays in their units, so the policy has
failed to achieve even its most basic goal: to protect morale and
cohesion by shielding straight troops from knowledge of gay troops.

The policy has also failed to preserve desperately
needed skilled personnel. Since the law’s inception, roughly 13,500
gay, lesbian and bisexual service members have been discharged.
According to the Government Accountability Office, nearly 800 of them
had “critical skills,” including more than 60 Arabic speakers. In the
meantime, the military has granted an increasing number of “moral
waivers” to ex-convicts and drug abusers to fill slots in a force
stretched thin by two wars.

According to the military’s own studies, the policy
(not the presence of gays) is undermining trust and integrity in the
force by mandating dishonesty, a point reiterated Tuesday by Adm. Michael G. Mullen,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and by my own research, in which
I spoke with hundreds of gay and straight troops who confirmed that

Finally, according to analyses by the Williams Institute at UCLA,
every year tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are wasted on enforcing
this policy and training replacements for fired soldiers.

The Pentagon’s hesitant roll toward repeal makes
sense only if a case can be made that, as bad as “don’t ask, don’t
tell” is, the path out of it is best trod slowly. Is this the case?

Research on institutional change, including our own
military’s experience with racial integration, answers this question
clearly. The two most important factors in a transition like this are
decisive leadership and a single code of conduct for all personnel. A
major study by the Rand Corp. in 1993 found that openly gay
service could work well, but it would be important for the senior
military leadership to throw their weight behind it.

The 500-page study said that a successful new policy
must be “decided upon and implemented as quickly as possible” to avoid
anxiety and uncertainty in the field. Finally, it said that “fast and
pervasive change will signal commitment to the (new) policy,” while
“incremental changes would likely be viewed as experimental” and weaken

Rand’s research has been borne out in foreign militaries that have lifted their bans. In the 1990s, court rulings in Canada and Britain mandated that gay troops be allowed to serve openly; the transitions were implemented quickly. The Ministry of Defense in Britain hailed a transformation in its ranks with “no discernible impact” on lowering cohesion or morale.

In the face of such research and experience, why is
the military — and the Obama administration — trying to move slowly?
Certainly political considerations and the moral opposition of many in
the military community play a role, along with the slow grind of
legislative realities. But the president has the authority to invoke
his “stop-loss” power to bring discharges to a halt overnight, and it
would be better for national security and individual troops if he would
use it.

It is heartening to see movement toward ending the
policy. If the Defense Department’s changes are adopted, they must be
implemented decisively to ensure success. Better yet, it should move
decisively to end the policy once and for all.

(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.

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