The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, January 26, 2009

Boring Into "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

A bore is a man who, when you ask him how he is, tells you.
– Bert Leston Taylor, 1922

It is entirely possible Taylor lifted the above witticism from Voltaire’s 1738 work Sept Discours en Vers sur l'Homme, which contains the line, “The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” As applied to the contemporary military policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the term "bore" has little to do with actually being boring. Everybody seems preternaturally interested in the necessity of U.S. soldiers divulging their sexuality.

Instead, bore is more likely to invoke the image of a slow and stupid person in this context. Why would a gay soldier reveal their sexual preference when self-identification is the only means by which the military may prosecute and remove them from service?

The idea of a bore as someone or something repetitive, wearisome, or tiresome is also appropriate here. No matter which side of the issue you stand, everybody is sick of introspection over whether the government has the right to limit military service to heterosexuals.

Yet revisit it again we all will because President Obama has strongly indicated he seeks to lift all bans on gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces.

Knowing exactly how fast and how far the new Administration will act is difficult to determine, since Obama was admittedly androgynous in his commitment to the concept during the campaign, depending on to whom he was speaking.

When addressing the Human Rights Campaign, he radiated frank assuredness. “America is ready to get rid of [this] policy. All that is required is leadership.” Conversely, when interviewed by the Military Times, he was more reticent. “I want to make sure that we are doing it in a thoughtful and principled way . . . This is not something that I'm looking to shove down the military's throats.”

These two views are not necessarily contradictory. Former President Bill Clinton attempted to do the same thing in the first one hundred days of his Presidency and received his first major embarrassment/defeat from Congress in the process.

The resulting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislation contained little that was groundbreaking, mostly serving to codify formally past standard practices. Its principal significance lay in taking away what had formerly been the sole decision of the Commander-In-Chief. Obama must convince a majority of Congress to repeal the ban, which severely cuts into his ability to play “the decider” in this matter, even assuming he desires such a role.

A disconnect between military personnel and civilians on this subject compounds the problem’s complexity. Seventy-nine percent of Americans favored gays serving openly in a May 2007 CNN poll. This represents a clear majority and is up significantly from the forty-four percent who felt that way back in 1993.

However, a 2006 poll by the Military Times found only thirty percent of active military personnel favored gays serving openly and a fifty-nine percent majority strongly opposed the idea.

Language adopted by Congress in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law reflects military reasoning for opposing gays.

“The primary purpose of the armed forces is to prepare for and to prevail in combat should the need arise . . . Success in combat requires military units that are characterized by high morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion. One of the most critical elements in combat capability is unit cohesion, that is, the bonds of trust among individual service members that make the combat effectiveness of a military unit greater than the sum of the combat effectiveness of the individual unit members. Military life is fundamentally different from civilian life.”

Doubtless, some heterosexual soldiers also cite ethical reasons rather than or in addition to the military arguments. No less than former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Peter Pace, told the Chicago Tribune in a March 2007 interview, “I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts.”

Of course, there are ethical arguments for inclusion. At the time he first announced his intention to life the ban on gay soldiers, former President Clinton declared, “The issue is whether men and women who can and have served with real distinction should be excluded from military service solely on the basis of their status. And I believe they should not.”

President Obama frames this logic in even more pragmatic terms. “At a time when we are short-handed, everybody who is willing to lay down their lives on behalf of the United States and can do so effectively . . . should have the opportunity to do so.”

Although the number of active military personnel discharged because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” since its inception hovers at over twelve thousand, numbers have dropped starkly since September 11, suggesting need has indeed outweighed concerns.

There is also work by numerous researchers, most notably Doctor Gregory Herek, Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Davis and co-author of the 1996 book Out In Force – Sexual Orientation and the Military, that suggest fears over loss of military unit cohesion due to openly serving homosexuals is overstated.

Herek divides unit cohesion into two subcategories. Social cohesion is the extent to which group members like and feel emotionally comfortable with each other. Task cohesion is the degree to which group members share common goal(s) and feel motivated to coordinate their efforts as a team to achieve them. Herek argues it is the latter cohesion, which can exist without strong social cohesion, that is most contributory to unit effectiveness.

While civilian authority over the military is the law in this country, an understandably strong bias exists within the military that civilians do not appreciate its different lifestyle and, thus, decisions about the military should remain the sole province of the military.

In one sense, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is less about protecting the military as a whole from the actual screw-ups or problems created by its homosexual minority and more about protecting that minority from the fears and general discomfort of the military’s heterosexual majority. If the presence of openly gay soldiers compromises unit effectiveness, then, right or wrong, the safety of all soldiers in that unit is compromised – including and perhaps more especially that of its gay soldiers.

Yet if maximizing combat effectiveness is the military’s primary purpose, why should the military permit the discomfort of individual soldiers, even if they represent the majority, to compromise unit effectiveness any more than the sexuality of other individual soldiers? Is not surrender of personal preferences to the common good in service of country the hallmark of any good soldier?

It is understood that those who oppose gays serving in the military desire to identify and remove all homosexual soldieries currently serving and attempting to serve. However, total removal is unlikely since no way exists to identify except through self-identification by verbal declaration or observation of open actions.

On this basis, it is impossible even to ascertain objectively whether the current “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy correctly identifies and removes the vast majority of homosexuals from the ranks or leaves the vast majority in place, although a healthy skepticism suggests the latter.

If detecting the presence of homosexuals is paramount to those worried over unit cohesion and effectiveness, it seems to me this would be maximized by allowing gay soldiers to declare their sexuality without retribution than the current state of affairs, in which every soldier in every unit is conceivably suspect. It further seems to me the stress of serving with openly gay solders by some heterosexuals would be little worse than the stress that exists for hetero- and homosexuals under the current system, in attempting to ferret out and avoid detection respectively.

The only obvious downside to repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for those opposed to gays in the military is that identified homosexuals could not be removed for this reason alone. Yet this ignores the fact that gays are now and probably always have been in the U.S. military since its inception. If serving with gays is unavoidable, operating under conditions of superior intelligence rather than hypocritical pretense best serves heterosexual concerns in the long run.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice can still protect the troops. While it could no longer prosecute a soldier simply for being gay, it might do so if they express their sexuality in an excessive or improper way that would be directly harmful to unit effectiveness. This would be analogous to allowing a soldier to drink alcoholic beverages but not while on duty.

The fatal flaw of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is that it relies on self-identification by gays, to their own detriment, in order to achieve the goals of their detractors. To paraphrase the opening quote by Taylor, only an exceptionally stupid bore would tell who they are, when asked under such circumstances.

And only a stupider, bigger bore would expect/hope for them to do so.

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