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

Friday, February 5, 2010

Send Round the Whine

Admiral Mullen’s Courageous Testimony Invokes the Same Old Tired Response

Shall I ask the brave soldier who fights by my side
In the cause of mankind, if our creeds agree?
Shall I give up the friend I have valued and tried,
If he kneel not before the same altar with me?
. . .
No, perish the hearts and the laws that try
Truth, valour, or love by standards like these!
– Thomas Moore, “Come, Send Round the Wine,” 1808

When former President Bill Clinton announced his intention in early 1993 to allow homosexuals to begin serving openly in the U.S. military, former General Colin Powell, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was among those sent scurrying to the White House to talk him out of it. The compromise policy that evolved was christened Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Gay and lesbian soldiers were welcome to serve so long as they kept their sexual preferences secret. Anyone suspected of homosexuality would be investigated; anyone admitting to being gay would be prohibited from joining the military or summarily discharged if already serving.

In the past seventeen years, over thirteen thousand qualified and competent soldiers have been discharged solely because of their sexual orientation. In some cases, soldiers with expensive and badly needed special training have been lost, most notably translators fluent in Arabic.

However, conservative politicians and any senior military officers who would comment on the subject insisted that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was good policy. They acknowledged the presence of gays and lesbians in the ranks, even professed to value their service, but asserted the military as a whole was not ready to tolerate openly gay soldiers.

This standoff remained the status quo until Presidential candidate Barack Obama promised to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Gay rights proponents were growing frustrated with the new President’s lack of action until Obama announced, during his recent State of the Union Address, “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.”

Admiral Mike Mullen, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was testifying before the Senate Armed Forces Committee this week. On Tuesday afternoon, he was asked what he thought about the President’s intentions.

Mullen, like so many officers before him, could have espoused Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell as a regrettable but necessary evil to maintain esprit de corps. Like Defense Secretary Gates, testifying before him, he might have defaulted to following the orders of his Commander-In-Chief. Instead, the nation’s highest ranking soldier delivered this courageous, decent, and candid opinion.

“Mr. Chairman, speaking for myself and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do. No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, personally, it comes down to integrity – theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.”

His words hit the Republican and conservative Democratic Senators on the panel like a rogue WMD. Mullen did not presume to speak for his fellow Joint Chiefs or the military as a whole. In fact, he made it clear he did not see this as his decision but looked to Congress to uphold or revoke the law.

Nonetheless, the moment Mullen finished speaking, Senators forsook the poet Moore’s appeal to “send round the wine” in the spirit of fellowship and started “sending round the whine” instead.

Back in 2006, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona told an Iowa State University audience that he supported Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell because military leaders supported it. “The day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, ‘Senator, we ought to change the policy,’ then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it,” McCain told the crowd.

When the current leader of the military told him just that, McCain pronounced himself “deeply disappointed” with Mullen’s testimony and pointed back to the disapproval of former military leaders as the gold standard by which he intended to continue standing.

Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia saw fit to summarize the hypocritical dichotomy that lies at the heart of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

“Today we know we have gay and lesbian soldiers serving. They’ve served in the past. They’re going to serve in the future, and they’re going to serve in a very valiant way . . . [However,] Military life is fundamentally different from civilian life . . . In my opinion, the presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would very likely create an unacceptable risk to those high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and effective unit cohesion and effectiveness.”

Chambliss believes soldiers will trust or distrust their fellow soldiers on the battlefield based less on their past demonstrated experience/competence in battle and more about how nervous they feel toward them in the barrack showers.

However, it was Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama who attacked Mullen most vigorously. Sessions lamented that Mullen had overstepped his authority by offering his opinion on the subject. He feared the results of a study currently being conducted by the military to evaluate the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was now “preordained” to find in favor of doing so. He further worried that junior officers and soldiers in the field might feel forced to change or suppress their true feelings on the subject, given Mullen’s “undue command influence.”

Mullen bore stoically through most of the criticisms but took obvious exception to Sessions’s final remark.

“This is about leadership and I take that very, very seriously,” he tautly replied.

I do not doubt that many actively serving soldiers and, even more so, many veterans oppose allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly. In some cases, their reasons may rise from fear and ignorance but, in many others, it derives from their sincere religious/moral values as well as an abiding love for the institution in which they serve.

Yet while change may not come easily or without mistakes, it will never come by waiting for overwhelming consensus. Instead, much like racial integration, it will come through a mixture of fiat and leadership. President Obama and Congressional Democrats are attempting to provide the fiat; Mullen is stepping up to provide some leadership.

He is right to say the current policy is not only bad for homosexuals but bad for the military as well. An organization that stresses personal integrity is not just encouraging but requiring thousands of its members to lie. An organization that stresses trust as imperative to survival is using hypocrisy to create an illusion of trust. An organization run on clear, unambiguous orders is sending mixed signals by honoring the valor of gays and lesbians but punishing their veracity.

Mullen has shattered a rhetorical bulwark, much loved by conservatives, that no high-ranking, respectable, mainstream U.S. military officer favors – or could favor – repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and allowing homosexuals to serve openly. We might not all agree with Mullen’s views on this subject but we should all admire his bravery, not to mention his loyalty.

Mullen will not desert comrades in arms or dishonor his troops because some of them “kneel not before the same altar” with him. Everyone in that Senate chamber should have come to attention and saluted – Tuesday afternoon there was an officer on deck.

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