What must be done before repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

The military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is an easy target for an editorial board to express its moral indignation over the lies of U.S. military leaders. The Times has published several editorials on the subject, most recently the March 29 piece on retired Marine Gen. John Sheehan’s false allegations that gay Dutch troops were partly to blame for the Srebrenica massacre. The comments are inexcusable, but as a gay American I thoroughly reject the notion that we ought to be focused on repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” before addressing the far greater threats that the U.S. military structure poses to American democracy. Sheehan’s lies are far less threatening than the cavalcade of military rhetorical manipulations that all Americans, regardless of sexuality, have been subjected to for decades.

Take, for example, the late former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who did his utmost to co-opt the anxieties of the American people over the ill-conceived Vietnam War for the sole purpose of rationalizing it. Not until his 1995 memoire, “In Retrospect,” did McNamara finally admit that the Vietnam War was a mistake. Yet in 1968, when his views on the war actually mattered, McNamara was still in full co-opting mode, writing in his book, “The Essence of Security”: “This is a nation in which the freedom of dissent is fundamental. And beneath its specific protests there runs a generalized theme in most of the serious student discussion. It is the fear that somehow society, all society -- East and West -- has fallen victim to a bureaucratic tyranny of technology that is gradually depersonalizing and alienating modern man himself.”

McNamara, he would have his readers in 1968 believe, felt hippie pain. The Vietnam War lasted another seven years after McNamara penned those chillingly manipulative words.

Sound familiar? After President Obama’s speech last year announcing the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, a Times editorial noted that the president said the aim is “to deploy troops to target the insurgency and protect cities while building up the Afghan military and government -- ‘nation-building,’ without the scary name, in a country that has studiously resisted previous attempts by outsiders to forge a central state.”

Just as McNamara in 1968 got the picture that antiwar Americans had an aversion to “bureaucratic tyranny,” the Obama administration gets the picture that Americans of all stripes are averse to nation-building in faraway places. Even before Obama’s first Afghanistan surge announcement in March 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates warned against “creating some sort of a central Asian Valhalla over there” (Valhalla is a reference to paradise). Just as McNamara endeavored to convey his sympathy for hippie attitudes toward depersonalized bureaucracy, Gates appealed to recession-weary Americans that he too is concerned about expensive, pie-in-the-sky nation-building missions.

So why do the American people so passively accept this behavior by their leaders? Has the lack of a draft since the Vietnam War created such an effective bulwark between the vast majority of Americans and those in the military establishment, who would otherwise be in a position to abuse us, that it relieves us of thinking too deeply about going to war? Ill-conceived and open-ended wars that could take our lives, destroy our spirits and tear apart our families would surely hurt us, but mere words -- rhetorical manipulation from defense secretaries, generals and others -- cannot.

Is it fair that those serving our country in uniform continue to be subjected -- body and mind -- to manipulations by the military establishment while we long ago lifted the yoke of military tyranny for ourselves? Moreover, must a decision to serve one’s country in uniform necessitate total submission to government propaganda?

A fairer approach would be for Congress to use its Article I constitutional powers to democratize the armed services by allowing enlisted members -- at precisely the moment of enlistment -- to give themselves greater autonomy over their own lives. Our enlisted service members should be given two distinct options: One would be to designate the enlistee’s service strictly for the national defense when Congress formally declares war on another country; the second would include, in addition to such war declarations, any authorization of military force, be it for nation-building, peacekeeping, disaster relief or any other purpose. Enlisted troops opting for the second choice would then be able to choose which -- if any -- deployments their moral conscience is calling them.

Repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell”? Let’s repeal our authoritarian, propaganda-dependent military structure first.

Timothy Rieger, a former congressional lobbyist and LGBT advocate, is a writer living in Miami.