DADT: Now the Really Hard Part Begins

Marine Corps Gen. James Amos has been a strong opponent of repealing DADT. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Hold the celebrations. Congress’s repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell" is a victory for civil rights. But it’s only the start of what are likely to be difficult, even tortured, months or possibly years, as the military struggles to adapt to the new law. One of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s arguments in favor of congressional repeal was that he foresaw a judgment by courts overturning the law. A legal judgment would require instant compliance, he warned, whereas a Congressional repeal would, he hoped, allow time for the military to adapt. The legislation shepherded to victory by the cross-party alliance of Senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins gives Gates the time he wanted. Adjustment is unlikely to be easy or swift, though.

The most immediate question concerns the future of the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Amos. Alone among the service chiefs, Amos has spoken out repeatedly and passionately against a repeal of DADT. The review that Gates cannily put in hand included opinions about gays among the serving military, which found that some 70 percent thought repeal would have little or no effect. But the Marines’ combat units were warier: 58 percent thought gays openly serving in their units would adversely affect cohesion. “I have to listen to that.” Amos said at the Pentagon appearance 10 days ago. 

Amos is haunted by a vision: “I don’t want to lose any Marines to distraction. I don’t want to have any Marine that I’m visiting at Bethesda [naval hospital] with no legs be the result of any distraction.” Amos’s vision may be overwrought. He may, understandably, be influenced by his own views as a committed Christian. As the first aviator to become commandant—he took over only in October—he may also feel he has to demonstrate solidarity with the kids on the front lines. He is also subject to peer pressures other service chiefs are spared. The Marines are different from the other services: once a Marine, always a Marine; it’s a brotherhood for life. Amos is doing no more than his job if he listens to the views of long-retired members of that brotherhood.

Nevertheless, Congress has finally acted. What does Amos do now? It’s common ground that preparing the military for this challenge is going to require, above all, leadership in each service, starting at the top. Will Amos decide he cannot, in all conscience, lead the Marines into this new world?  On Sunday evening, the general released a statement reading, in part, "Fidelity is the essence of the United States Marine Corps. ... I, and the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, will personally lead [the] effort [to implement the new policy], thus ensuring the respect and dignity due all Marines."

At one level, the debate has been absurd. Gays have always served in the military. It’s a safe bet that every large military base in America has on its outskirts at least one bar where gays from the base quietly gather. Two-thirds of the serving military questioned in the Pentagon survey believed they had served alongside gays. A handful, at least, of Medal of Honor recipients reputedly have been gay. Some very senior officers are gay. One of the most brilliant Army four-stars of the last generation was gay, and so lonely that his command sergeant major would quietly warn young newcomers to his staff to avoid after-hours invitations. When the four-star died, he was lauded as a great warrior.  

A few serving units have been composed almost wholly of gays. Any reporter who has covered the military for any length of time has heard the stories. One of the most celebrated maintenance teams in the Air Force was for years almost exclusively lesbian—and proud of it. That posed delicate problems for personnel officers sending newcomers into the unit. But it never occurred to the Air Force to expel the group. They were simply too good and too valuable.  

Every service has similar anecdotal examples. One of the most effective Special Operations Forces teams is reputed within the SOF fraternity to be largely gay. Aboard one U.S. aircraft carrier, a team with one of the most demanding jobs—one on which the lives of the carrier’s pilots depend—is widely known on the carrier to be gay. 

Those could be dismissed as, paradoxically, unisex units. The issue, critics of repeal have argued, is how a team composed of straights and gays would perform. This is a legitimate concern too easily dismissed by civilian advocates of reform. On the evidence, though, the concern is overstated. Of those who believed they had served with gays, 92 percent told the Pentagon survey that their presence had not affected the unit.    

There is an old military saying: “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” It has a parallel here: what matters in combat is whether the man beside you can be trusted to do his job, not whether —in less fraught circumstances—he might fancy you. (The issue of gays is distinct, therefore, from the almost-as-contentious issue of women in front-line combat roles. In that debate, practical concerns about upper-body strength—can you carry a wounded comrade to safety—do have force. Women do bravely serve, and die, in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. But front-line combat squads may be a task too far.)  

Much of the fear of gays is likely based on ignorance. Few of the kids—teenage and early20s—who fill the Marines’ combat units will have known avowed gays.  (Football-obsessed high schools in America’s heartland tend to be unwelcoming to declared gays.)  The upshot, as the Pentagon survey tactfully observed, is “a misperception that a gay man does not “fit” the image of a good war fighter.” Many in the military, more bluntly, have a stereotype of gays as mincing, epicene “others” —a cartoon image which, the Pentagon survey shows, overwhelmingly evaporates on personal acquaintance.

In pushing through the repeal of DADT, however, Gates and the military leadership confront a more fundamental challenge. For more than a generation, ever since 1973, America has had an all-volunteer professional military. The result is a military of unsurpassed skill. But it has also brought a belief widespread in the officer corps that the military is not merely different from American society at large, but also superior to it in its regard for truth, honor, loyalty and discipline—a conviction that too easily spreads to disapproving views about civilian society’s “values." Any significant contact with the military reveals that.

The U.S. military remains profoundly democratic in its respect for civilian leadership. Burt Lancaster’s intended coup in Seven Days in May is unthinkable. But the gulf between the military and civilian society is real; and it has widened through almost 10 years of grueling wars in pursuit of goals hotly disputed by America’s civilian political leaders. Demanding that the military now accept openly gay soldiers will strike many in the military, whatever their personal views, as an imposition by civilians who have never served and who don’t appreciate the military’s uniqueness.

Precisely for that reason, it could be argued, the decision to repeal DADT is a good one.  It reminds the military that they should be representative of the society they are sworn to defend. But only an optimist would expect the decision to be implemented without a struggle.

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