I am hard-pressed to see why President Obama feels compelled to revisit the issue of gays in the military now. At the same time I am open to revising the policy — as are, I believe, many in service personnel, including some who supported the ban on gays when President Clinton first tried to lift it almost two decades ago. There are no good measurements of what service personnel are thinking but public opinion has shifted dramatically on the issue. In 1993 only 43% favored lifting the ban on gays; now, according to Gallup, it’s 69% (including 58% of Republicans).
Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates are taking a reasonable step by announcing “that the military will no longer aggressively pursue disciplinary action against gay service members whose orientation is revealed against their will by third parties.” How much further the gay-rights policy should go is unclear. The key issue is not simply a matter of gay rights but also of military efficiency. To what extent would the good order of our armed services be upset by allowing gays to serve more openly than they currently do? In most situations I don’t believe doing so would be disruptive. It is certainly silly to be discharging Arabic linguists sitting in some Washington office just because they happen to be gay.
The vast majority of service personnel are stationed at giant bases, whether in Iraq and Afghanistan or in Texas and North Carolina, where it is not hard to get privacy and where their jobs resemble those of civilian workers in many ways. Going to the bathroom involves, literally, a visit to the bathroom — not to a slit trench. Sexual issues are already raised on those bases by the presence of women. In fact the problem is more serious because women in heterosexual relationships have the potential to get pregnant — as some servicewomen do, thereby having to go home and creating a vacancy that has to be filled by someone else. There are also issues of sexual harassment and discrimination that need to be tightly policed — whether involving homosexuals or heterosexuals.
One of the adaptations the military has made is to allow women into most billets but not into tight-knit combat formations — nuclear submarine crews or infantry squads. They live in close quarters and often-unpleasant conditions where privacy is nonexistent and trust and esprit de corps are all-important. I remember discussing the issue last year with a Special Forces team deployed in the field and was struck by the unanimity of opinion against lifting the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The special operators were horrified at the thought of gays in their ranks. This may be rank prejudice, and perhaps the result of ignorance, since there are already probably some gays in their midst. But the attitude still exists and higher authority can tamper with the policy only at the risk of causing a drop in morale.
Special Forces is one of the areas in which women are still not allowed to serve even though most jobs in the military have been opened to them. Why not simply extend to gays the same policy applied to women? That is, let gays serve openly in most billets but not in a few combat designations. It seems like a reasonable compromise.