This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
The federal policy that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military until someone outs them is nearly 17 years old. It’s high time that it grew up.
America is a different place than it was in 1993 when Congress passed the law as a rebuke of President Bill Clinton.
Back then, 44 percent of Americans believed that gays and lesbians should be able to serve openly. Today, 75 percent do.
Back then, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, opposed Clinton’s move to end the ban on gay soldiers. Powell said it would undermine discipline and order in the military.
On Tuesday, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, told Congress that “allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do.”
“I have served with homosexuals since 1968,” Mullen said. “Putting individuals in a position where they wonder ‘Is today going to be the day?’ and devaluing them in that regard, just is inconsistent with us as an institution.”
Talk about a sea change. Even Powell has beat a retreat on his earlier opposition, saying “attitudes and circumstances have changed” and so should the policy.
The problems that military leaders predicted nearly two decades ago are less of a threat today. Some intolerance remains, but recent recruits have been shaped by mainstream America’s growing acceptance of gays and lesbians.
Many have grown up among classmates or friends who were openly gay. They have been deployed to countries where they fought alongside other nations where gay soldiers serve openly in uniform.
Repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” simply does not pose the potential disruption to forces that lifting the ban would have in 1993. But shifting social norms tell only half the story. Enforcement of the policy has been its other death knell.
A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office estimated that a decade of “don’t ask, don’t tell” had cost the military $190 million.
Some experts suggest the cost is nearly twice that, but even their estimates don’t include the value of the lost personnel. Of the more than 11,000 service men and women who have been discharged under the policy, 730 were mission-critical soldiers and more than 65 were badly needed Arabic and Farsi linguists.
In some instances, the policy puts commanders in the untenable position of carrying out others’ vendettas.
Air Force Maj. Margaret Witt, a decorated flight nurse who was assigned to McChord Air Force Base, never violated the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. A former civilian lover outed Witt to her superiors, and the Air Force booted Witt after 18 years of service. Witt sued, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the military has to prove that Witt’s discharge was necessary to protect “unit cohesiveness.”
The military clearly can’t make that argument in Witt’s case – her firing caused an uproar in her unit and led one officer to retire in protest. It’s debatable whether the military can make that argument in any case these days.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” has run its course. Congress should repeal it.