EVEN AS A COMPROMISE, “don’t ask, don’t tell” was unsatisfactory. Although it improved on the Pentagon’s previous policy of excluding gays from military service, it did not right a historic wrong.
In the years since 1993, when the policy went into effect, this page has referred to it as “bigoted,” “craven,” “hypocritical” and “idiotic.” Now it’s all of that and something worse: a threat to our national security interests. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the military has ousted 58 Arabic-language specialists for “telling.”
Discharging such experts while we are at war in Iraq and menaced by terrorists throughout the Arabic-speaking world adds “self-defeating” to the list of epithets that can be tossed at this discriminatory practice. In its report, the 9/11 commission cited the dearth of language specialists as one reason Arabic cables went unread in the days before the attacks. Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), who has sought a repeal of the policy for years, and about 40 other members of Congress have asked the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee to hold hearings on the ousted linguists.
One of the cases that prompted Meehan’s request is that of former Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Benjamin. According to Meehan’s office and news reports, Benjamin was one of about 70 service personnel at Ft. Gordon in Georgia investigated for using a restricted military computer system to send personal e-mails that in some cases were romantic or sexual. From his e-mails, the Navy deduced that Benjamin was gay; when he refused to deny it, he was discharged. His straight colleagues received administrative punishments.
In all, about 13,000 service personnel have been discharged for “telling,” according to Gary Gates, a senior researcher at the Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank. The purge has continued even as the military has lowered recruitment standards, extended tours of duty for troops and kept thousands serving beyond their retirement dates or enlistment periods. And about 3,000 gays annually do not reenlist because of the policy, Gates said.
Meanwhile, there is a growing acceptance of gays among military personnel. A 2006 UC Santa Barbara poll of troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan found that nearly one in four said they knew “for sure” that someone in their unit was gay; more than half had been told directly by that person. Twenty-four countries allow gays to serve openly, including some of our allies in Iraq. Israel has allowed gays to serve openly since 1993 and the British since 2000.
Acceptance of gays in the armed services is widespread among civilians too. According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2006, 60% of Americans favored letting gays serve. Young people overwhelmingly did, with 72% of those aged 18 to 29 in favor. And all of the Democratic presidential candidates want to see the policy repealed.
Compromise may have been understandable back in 1993, but it serves no purpose now. There is no moral basis for discriminating against gays in military service, and there are practical consequences as well. Nothing could make that clearer than the damage this peacetime compromise is wreaking on our wartime capabilities.