Anna Quindlen: End the Ban on Gays in the Military

The most unlikely blurb of this publishing season is on the back cover of Nathaniel Frank's "Unfriendly Fire" and comes from John Shalikashvili. The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff lauds a book that systematically trashes a policy the general once oversaw: the ban on openly gay men and lesbians in the military known as "don't ask, don't tell."

When it became law in 1993, the policy was sold as an attempt to allow gays to serve if they did not discuss their orientation or participate in homosexual acts—that is, if they lived a life of pretense and self-denial not required of straight counterparts. Shame and second-class status were therefore built into the deal, and unsurprisingly led to a reality in which exemplary soldiers were harassed, investigated and expelled based on "evidence" as negligible as friendly banter or thoughtless gossip.

The rationale behind keeping gays out of the military has always been a moving target, since there is not a scintilla of data or evidence to support it. First there were claims of security risks, then the spread of disease. Eventually there was something called unit cohesion, an argument that soldiers did not want to serve with gay service members and therefore would not perform properly if forced to do so.

There is an equivalent to all this in our recent past, in the argument against letting black soldiers serve alongside whites. In 1942 a vice admiral insisted that "the minute the negro is introduced in to the general service," the quality of soldiers would plummet. Esprit de corps, even disease—the same arguments that were used against black Americans, arguments that seem shameful today, have been used against gay ones. (In a breathtaking factoid, Frank's meticulously reported book notes that during World War II the Red Cross was ordered to maintain racially separate blood banks.) In both cases, opponents bolstered their arguments with polls showing resistance in the ranks, as if service members were required to do only that which they approved. So much for the much-vaunted chain of command.

Integrating the armed forces wasn't popular, and it wasn't easy. It was simply right. That's what President Bill Clinton believed about allowing gay men and lesbians, many of whom were already in the military, to serve openly. But in Clintonesque fashion, he tried to craft a plan that would please everyone, principle subordinated to consensus. Of course it wound up pleasing no one. Evangelical Christians thought "don't ask, don't tell" too tolerant of people they considered immoral. Liberals thought requiring one group of soldiers to masquerade was the immoral part.

Gay service members have borne the brunt of this jerry-built policy ever since, and it has been an unmitigated disaster. Women, who already often face a hostile work environment in the armed forces, have been discharged at a much higher rate than their male counterparts, and some initially were assumed to be lesbians merely because they'd resisted the advances of straight men. Gay men have been thrown out after witch hunts that included threats and violence. Thousands of service members have been expelled, costing the military millions of dollars both to investigate and to replace those with special skills.

In January of this year alone, the Army fired 11 soldiers under the policy, including a military-police officer and a health-care specialist. Dozens of Arabic-language translators have been thrown out of the service as well, including one whose captain's evaluation began: "Exceptional leader." In the meantime, to meet recruitment quotas, special waivers have been issued to allow the enlistment of hundreds of convicted felons, including arsonists and burglars. One man who had repeatedly beaten his wife was accused of beating prisoners in Iraq; another, who stabbed an Iraqi private with a bayonet, had been accused of assault as a civilian.

The absurdity of this is so overwhelming that even many of those who once supported the policy have turned against it. Former Republican senator Alan Simpson wrote, "We need every ablebodied smart patriot to help us win this war," and retired General Shalikashvili called for the end of "don't ask, don't tell," saying it was important to "consider the evidence that has emerged" against a ban on gay service members. But overwhelming evidence has existed for decades that allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly has no effect on military mission or efficiency. Time after time, respected think tanks and governmental departments have been asked to study the issue, and time after time the result has been buried by military leaders who preferred mythology to data.

Some members of Congress have recently suggested an "in-depth study" of this issue. All they need do is read Frank's book to see that it has been studied to death. The existing policy is a blot on the reputation of the U.S. armed forces, since it suggests that while the Australians, the Canadians, the Israelis, the British and service members from 20 other countries that have jettisoned gay bans can overcome individual differences, Americans cannot.

When he was asked about "don't ask, don't tell" recently, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted that he and President Obama have a lot on their plates, what with Afghanistan and Iraq. But if the president places the notion of America as a place of fairness and freedom above all, he will immediately issue an executive order suspending this irrational and prejudiced policy. Its only use is to diminish our fighting force, our national security and our moral standing in the world.