In an important op-ed in yesterday's New York Times, retired army general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1993 to 1997, John Shalikashvili, concludes that the anti-gay "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is unnecessary and should be phased out. Shalikashvili's stand is especially significant because he was among the most influential opponents of President Clinton's plan to lift the ban on gays in the military.
The basic reason Shalikashvili gives for his conversion is that the experience of the last 14 years has shown that allowing gays to serve openly would not undermine morale, harm recruitment, or hurt unit cohesion — long the main claims of those who have opposed allowing gay Americans to serve. He cites as evidence for his new view: (1) the experience of more than two dozen other countries (including the most effective militaries, Britain and Israel) that allow gays to serve openly, (2) recent polls showing that American military personnel serving in Iraq overwhelming say they would have no problem serving with gays, (3) the serious need of the armed forces for more personnel, and (4) his own interviews with gay Americans who have served openly, honorably, and bravely, often in combat, in Iraq.
Here's the key passage in the op-ed:
When I was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I supported the current policy because I believed that implementing a change in the rules at that time would have been too burdensome for our troops and commanders. I still believe that to have been true. The concern among many in the military was that given the longstanding view that homosexuality was incompatible with service, letting people who were openly gay serve would lower morale, harm recruitment and undermine unit cohesion.
In the early 1990s, large numbers of military personnel were opposed to letting openly gay men and lesbians serve. President Bill Clinton, who promised to lift the ban during his campaign, was overwhelmed by the strength of the opposition, which threatened to overturn any executive action he might take. The compromise that came to be known as "don't ask, don't tell" was thus a useful speed bump that allowed temperatures to cool for a period of time while the culture continued to evolve.
The question before us now is whether enough time has gone by to give this policy serious reconsideration. Much evidence suggests that it has.
Last year I held a number of meetings with gay soldiers and marines, including some with combat experience in Iraq, and an openly gay senior sailor who was serving effectively as a member of a nuclear submarine crew. These conversations showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers.
This perception is supported by a new Zogby poll of more than 500 service members returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, three quarters of whom said they were comfortable interacting with gay people. And 24 foreign nations, including Israel, Britain and other allies in the fight against terrorism, let gays serve openly, with none reporting morale or recruitment problems.
I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces. Our military has been stretched thin by our deployments in the Middle East, and we must welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job.
Shalikashvili wants to proceed slowly with the change, not take it up as the first issue in the new Congress:
By taking a measured, prudent approach to change, political and military leaders can focus on solving the nation's most pressing problems while remaining genuinely open to the eventual and inevitable lifting of the ban. When that day comes, gay men and lesbians will no longer have to conceal who they are, and the military will no longer need to sacrifice those whose service it cannot afford to lose.
While I think the change could have been made effectively in 1993 or even before, and while DADT was in no sense a "compromise" that allowed gays to serve without fear of discovery and reprisal, I agree with Shalikashvili that the time has come for Congress to look seriously at lifting the ban. Other former military leaders and supporters of DADT have urged likewise. If Congress votes to lift the ban, the burden would then be on our compassionate conservative president to decide whether he will allow gay Americans to serve their country with honesty and integrity or will continue to force them to lie and hide in fear, wasting our money and their talent during wartime.