Don't Ask. Tell
McLean, Charles, Singer, P. W., Newsweek
Byline: Charles McLean and P. W. Singer
Why the military should soldier on with repealing 'don't ask, don't tell.'
Every gay-pride parade seems to have its share of sailor suits, aviator sunglasses, and camouflage trousers. In the U.S., such costumes are often drawn from the Halloween bin, since gays cannot serve openly in the military, let alone march for pride in their official uniforms. But that's not the case in Britain, where gay members of the Royal Navy, Air Force, Army, and Marines not only march but also move their partners into the military's family housing. The armed forces has also embraced the shift--which came following a European Court of Human Rights ruling 1999--placing recruitment ads in gay publications, and, last summer, featuring an openly gay soldier on the cover of the military's official magazine.
Britain isn't the only U.S. ally to allow open gays in the military. More than 25 of our allies, including every original NATO signatory other than the U.S. and Turkey, have transitioned to an open military. Most have made the switch since 1993, when Congress passed "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT), a policy that forbids gay soldiers from coming out of the closet. Last month Congress struck a compromise that could repeal DADT as early as this summer. But no matter when it happens--if it happens--the transition will be a matter of feverish debate. Critics have already warned that openly gay soldiers will sink morale--causing resignations, discord, and infighting--and ultimately damage readiness at a time when the U.S. military is already taxed to the extreme.
If the experience of our allies is any guide, however, the critics are wrong. In Britain, Australia, Canada, Israel, the Netherlands, and Sweden--strategic partners, often with militaries that have served alongside U.S. forces--the big news was, well, no news at all. Their transitions to open service were remarkably boring. "It was a nonevent," says retired Maj. Gen. Simon Willis, the former head of personnel for the Australian Defence Force, "and it continues to be a nonevent." Last month the Brookings Institution, in partnership with the Palm Center, a think tank at the University of California, Santa Barbara, brought Willis and other allied officers and experts together to discuss lessons learned from allowing openly gay service people. What they said should be a welcome source of comfort, mixed with caution, as the U.S. takes its first wobbly steps toward integration.
Above all, Congress and the Pentagon should rest assured that open service is, ironically, easier to implement than it is to study. Our allies had similarly fierce public debates. But once the new policies were in place, the return to normalcy was swift and all-encompassing. It was "really, really dull," recalls Craig Jones, a retired lieutenant commander in the British Royal Navy.
It helped, of course, that few pre-transition fears ever materialized. Cohesion within the ranks, for one, never faltered, and morale remained high. This shouldn't have surprised the international brass: for more than 3,000 years militaries have molded very different people into effective fighting units, says retired Capt. Alan Okros, a Canadian naval officer turned military scholar. Open service doesn't disrupt this foundation, he believes, because the "band of brothers" mythos is based less on heterosexual backslapping than a shared sense of mission, honor, and duty. …