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'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' on the Way Out

A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders

Sunday, December 05, 2010

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates released a long-awaited Pentagon working-group report on the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy enacted under President Bill Clinton. Most troops, the review found, would not object to a repeal.

Some troops made strong arguments in favor of repeal. As one service member noted, "We need all available men and women who are willing to serve their country, no matter what their sexual orientation is." Another said, "We shouldn't turn people away because of things they do in their private life."

One gay service member noted that a repeal would "take a knife out of my back." Amen to that. They have our back; we should remove the knife pointing at theirs.

Besides, I have to agree with the gay service member who predicted, "If it is repealed, everyone will look around their spaces to see if anyone speaks up. They'll hear crickets for a while. A few flamboyant guys and tough girls will join to rock the boat and make a scene. Their actions and bad choices probably will get them kicked out. After a little time has gone by, then a few of us will speak up. And instead of a deluge of panic and violence ... there'll be a ripple on the water's surface that dissipates quicker than you can watch."

That doesn't mean that there won't be problems. As Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., noted during Thursday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, the review also found that 58 percent of Marines in combat units and 48 percent of Army combat troops feared that repealing "don't ask, don't tell" would have a negative or a very negative impact on the ability of their units to work together. America is at war and Washington has to address the concerns of combat troops.

"Morale wins battles," said Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which opposes a repeal. Like McCain, Davis objects to the fact that the Pentagon review never polled troops on whether they wanted to end the policy. "I wish that the question was asked pointblank -- repeal, yes or no."

The Department of Defense, for its part, is very aware that civilians control the military, not the other way around. Hence, its resistance to polling troops. But I must pass on Davis' observation that although most civilians favor ending "don't ask, don't tell," most civilians have not enlisted. "You're telling someone else what to do, but you would never ever consider joining the military. That's pretty hypocritical in my humble opinion," he said with military precision.

While he understands societal change, Davis added, "The military is about the team; repeal is about the individual."

Fair enough, but there are practical reasons why McCain, the VFW and others who question the wisdom of repeal might want to get behind this document. Two words: "judicial fiat." As Gates warned, either Washington can repeal "don't ask, don't tell" or the courts can do it for Washington.

If the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco decides the matter -- in the wake of a federal judge's ruling suspending the policy -- you probably can kiss goodbye recommendations designed to protect troops who have religious or moral objections to ending "don't ask, don't tell."

The panel, for example, understood that troops might oppose repealing "don't ask, don't tell" out of the fear that it will be "only a matter of time before the military censors the religious expression of chaplains and marginalizes denominations that teach what the Bible says about homosexual behavior." Having seen San Francisco pols go after religious groups, I understand that fear.

The report made clear that a repeal should not try to control how military personnel think: "In the event of repeal, we cannot and should not expect individual Service members to change their personal religious or moral beliefs about homosexuality, but we do expect every Service member to treat all others with dignity and respect, consistent with core values that already exist in each Service." Treat everyone with respect. It's common sense.

The working group also recommended against creating a "protected class" for gays and lesbians. Aubrey Sarvis of the pro-repeal group, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, told me he is on board with that language. We're "not seeking any special privileges," he said. "All they're asking is to be who they are without losing their jobs."

Republicans have resisted allowing a vote in the lame-duck Congress. As Sarvis admitted, "It's no secret, one of the reasons we're pushing for the lame-duck, it's only going to get tougher in the new Congress."

But if repeal fails, Sarvis promised, "We will continue with our allies." And then he mentioned the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which will rule on a September decision by U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips of Riverside, Calif., that found the policy to be unconstitutional.

Everyone knows that "don't ask, don't tell" eventually will be repealed. It's only a matter of time. So the question is: Will it be repealed by people who care about the military and the rights of dissenters, or will it be repealed by an arrogant judge with a political agenda? That is the choice before the Senate.

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See Other Commentary by Debra J. Saunders.  

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