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No surveys needed to repeal ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’

COMMENTARY | July 26, 2010

Harry Truman needed guts, not just opinion polls, to integrate the armed forces. That’s what’s needed now, writes George Wilson.

By George C. Wilson

What is going on here with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law? That law says military superiors cannot ask the men and women serving under them whether they are gay and the gays cannot tell anybody about their sexual orientation. What is really going on is that President Obama, the Pentagon and the majority of Congress are all trying to be half pregnant.

The Pentagon commissioned a private firm, Westat, to spend about $4.5 million to ask 400,000 active duty and reserve military men and women what they think about serving alongside gays. But nobody — not Obama, not the Pentagon, not Congress — will be bound by what they say. So critics see the survey as an elaborate attempt to put lipstick on a pig; to provide political cover for those favoring the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

All this circumlocution must have President Harry Truman spinning in his grave today. For it was on this day 62 years ago — July 26, 1948 — that the feisty president from Independence, Mo., issued Executive Order 9981 to integrate the armed forces, a slow and often painful process for many in uniform but one that eventually led to making the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps the nation’s most equal-opportunity employers for blacks and other minorities.

It took guts for the straightforward Truman to defy lions in Congress by ordering integration through his own executive order, not legislation that would have never passed in his day. Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga., was the leader of the lion pride Truman defied. Russell before and after Truman issued Executive Order 9981 tried to amend the Selective Service law so draftees could choose whether they wanted to serve in segregated or integrated military units. Russell lost that fight.

Yet here we are 62 years later with a White House and Congress still feeling the need for political cover — this time a survey — to give full rights to another minority, homosexuals who want to serve their country without having to stay in the closet.

Thanks to the Palm Center research institute attached to the University of California, Santa Barbara, I read the questions the Pentagon is asking through Westat. Some of the questions made me wonder whether the framers of the questions had ever been in combat when bullets were flying through the air. Examples:

Q. “Among all the factors that affect a unit’s performance in combat, how much did the belief that the service member was gay or lesbian affect the unit’s combat performance: A lot? Some? A little? Not at all? No basis to judge?”

I was in combat in South Vietnam in 1968 and learned there that the Pentagon’s question is irrelevant when bullets are flying. The only thing you worry about is whether the trooper next to you, the nearest sergeant and the officer giving orders over the field radio knows his job and will do it well — not whether he or she is gay.

Similarly, I was deployed on the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy for seven- and-a-half months. The ship’s commanders suspected several of the communications technicians — the sailors who performed the sensitive job of coding and decoding secret messages — were gay but did not care as long as they did their jobs well and did not flaunt their sexual orientation. Performance is what counts in a high-stress military environment, not sexual orientation.

Q. “If ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is repealed, how, if at all, will your military career plans be affected? I will stay longer than I had planned. I will think about staying longer than I had planned. I will think about leaving sooner than I had planned. I will leave sooner than I had planned. My military career plans would not change. Don’t know.”

These questions are irrelevant and unanswerable until the troopers see what impact, if any, the scrapping of “don’t ask, don’t tell” will have on them. In the meantime, such questions are just a shot in the dark. Assuming “don’t ask, don’t tell” is repealed, it will be up to a unit’s leaders, gay or not, to make a military career challenging and interesting.

Q. “If a wartime situation made it necessary for you to share bathroom facilities with an open bay shower with someone you believe to be a gay or lesbian service member, which are you most likely to do? Mark 1. Take no action. Use the shower at a different time than the service member I thought to be gay or lesbian. Discuss how we expect each other to behave and conduct ourselves. Talk to a chaplain, mentor or leader about how to handle the situation. Talk to a leader to see if I had other options. Something else. Don’t know.”

Guess what? There are already thousands of gays in the American armed forces. Gays and nongays in uniform worked it out long ago, as have nonmilitary high schools, colleges and offices. Getting “don’t ask, don’t tell” out of the law books and welcoming declared gays who want to serve their country into the armed services will be a step forward, not backward.


This column first appeared in National Journal’s CongressDaily.

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