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Merrill McPeak on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Retired General Merrill McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff and a prominent Obama backer in the 2008 campaign, has weighed in with a New York Times op-ed against ending the current “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. I can’t say I find his arguments terribly persuasive.

For one thing, he implicitly threatens that the current military leadership would simply ignore or undermine a presidential order to allow gays to serve openly — “allowing an openly gay presence in ranks will be very difficult until we have committed leadership for it,” he writes, adding, “I certainly had trouble figuring out how to provide such leadership in 1993.” It’s harder to imagine a more blatant threat to subvert the civil-military relationship and, specifically, the oath that all service members swear to “obey the orders of the President of the United States.”

McPeak also makes the argument that unit cohesion will be undermined by allowing openly gay personnel to serve. His evidence? “We have already seen the fault lines form in the current debate: the individual service chiefs have expressed reservations about Admiral Mullen’s views. This lack of cohesion will likely make the Joint Chiefs less effective in the latest round of this debate.” Uh, right. So perhaps if the chiefs are called upon to undertake hand-to-hand combat against, say, Chinese generals, they may not fight very effectively. Is the implication here that the president should not pursue any policy that the Joint Chiefs do not unanimously support? Again, that’s contrary to all of our civil-military traditions and gives the chiefs authority they are not granted under law — and should not be granted, given the lack of strategic acumen often displayed by service chiefs.

I found two conspicuous absences in McPeak’s article. First, he doesn’t address the studies showing that openly gay personnel have not undermined unit cohesion in allied militaries, including those of Australia, Britain, and Israel. Perhaps the U.S. military is different, but he doesn’t say how.

Second, he makes no mention of the integration of women into the armed services in the 1970s, which occasioned arguments by the likes of Jim Webb (now a U.S. Senator) that were remarkably similar to those advanced by McPeak today. He writes: “We know, or ought to, that warriors are inspired by male bonding, by comradeship, by the knowledge that they survive only through relying on each other. To undermine cohesion is to endanger everyone.” One would think that the presence of women would do even more than the presence of gays to undermine “male bonding.” Yet women have been granted admittance into almost all military occupations, in roles including flying fighter jets as McPeak once did. They are present on all major and most minor bases even in war zones. They frequently and regularly circulate on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan. What evidence is there that their presence has undermined combat effectiveness? And if it hasn’t, why would the presence of un-closeted gays be more corrosive than that of women?


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