This week, Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Clinton administration, declared in an op-ed article in The New York Times that he no longer opposes allowing gays to serve openly in the military. His statement is important because he had in the past staunchly defended the policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on the grounds that allowing homosexuals to serve openly would hurt troop morale and recruitment and undermine the cohesion of combat units.
Later the same day in which the article appeared, former Defense Secretary William Cohen agreed with the general during an interview on CNN that Congress needs to revisit the issue of the ban on openly lesbian, gay and bisexual service personnel. Mr. Cohen’s statement also reflected a change of heart on the matter.
“I think what we’re hearing from within the military we’re hearing from within society, that we’re becoming a much more open, tolerant society for diverse opinions and orientation,” Mr. Cohen stated. He referred to the ban as a form of discrimination.
Both these authoritative statements and their context add strength to the argument that the ban on gays, like earlier policies segregating blacks from whites in military units and limiting the participation and promotion chances of women in the military, should have no place in American public policy.
Another significant aspect of the issue is that a groundswell of opinion calling for change is coming from within the military. Polls show that the attitudes in the uniformed service that reinforced the ban on gays are giving way to tolerance. The latest of these, by the polling organization Zogby International, indicate both a growing awareness of and tolerance of gay colleagues in combat theaters. The poll of 545 soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq found that that even among those who did not know for certain whether a gay soldier was in their unit, nearly half suspected as much and most of these didn’t feel this fact undermined morale. A 2004 Annenberg poll found that a majority of junior enlisted personnel favored allowing gays to serve openly, up from 13 percent a decade earlier.
Gen. Shalikashvili recounted in his article that a year ago he met with gay soldiers and Marines, including some with combat experience in Iraq and an openly gay sailor serving effectively aboard a nuclear submarine.
“These conversations showed me just how the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers,” he wrote.
A similar lesson arose right here in southeastern Connecticut, when Bronwen Tomb, a young woman cadet at the Coast Guard Academy, was forced out of the academy after she confided to another cadet that she is gay. The sympathetic reaction toward her following her dismissal and moral support she subsequently received from within the academy illustrated the degree to which thinking on this subject has changed. During a political debate in New London in November, three U.S. Senate candidates declared they would favor taking another look at this policy.
A right to serve the nation
One matter that is likely to bring the subject into the open is a practical consideration: the debate that is likely to develop this year over augmenting the size of the Armed Forces. Experience under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy has demonstrated what ought to be obvious to anyone, that gays can perform military duties as competently and without disruption as anyone else and ought to have the right to serve their country without having to lie about their sexual orientation, a personal matter. Not only is the policy unfair; it squanders the benefit of talented and patriotic people.
Gen. Shalikashvili emphasized that he was not calling for change overnight, but for a “measured, prudent approach.”
That way, he said, “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.”