This Is about Leadership: The Circular Debate of the Military's Gay Ban

Adm. Mullen testifies before Senate Armed Services Committee CREDIT: DoD photo, Cherie Cullen Adm. Mullen testifies at Senate Armed Services Committee
CREDIT: DoD photo, Cherie Cullen

On August 9, 2010, West Point Cadet Katherine Miller publicly announced she was gay and resigned from West Point, saying that "Don't Ask Don't Tell" had caused her to lie and thus violate West Point's Honor Code. See Mother Jones, A Gay Cadet's Sense of Honor.

Miller ranked ninth in her class of more than 1,100 students and will go to Harvard instead.

"This is about leadership. And I take that very seriously."

—Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Senate Armed Services Committee hearing February 2, 2010, advocating the repeal of the military's ban on open homosexuality. 1

Background

This year Congress formally heard from military officials regarding the law coined "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) for the first time since its implementation in 1993. The law prohibits gays from disclosing their sexual orientation or engaging in homosexual acts while uniformed members of the Armed Services.2 Since 1994, over 14,000 servicemembers have been discharged as a result of the policy and 66,000 are estimated to be currently serving in the military today.3

However, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in February 2010, Secretary Gates outlined a proposed study evaluating the effects of repealing DADT in order to minimize disruption once the ban is lifted.4 Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and highest ranking military official in the U.S. Armed Forces, then expressed his personal objections to the policy. 5

Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama opposed to lifting the ban, responded to the proposed study with harsh criticism. In his opinion, the study would not be accurate because both Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen have openly expressed their dissatisfaction with the current policy, and the study group would certainly act according to their commanders' bias. At first glance, Admiral Mullen's response, "This is about leadership," may have appeared to be a vague and weak response to Senator Session's objections. But it takes an understanding of the history of the debate to fully appreciate the insight of the chairman's words.

 

The Basis of Opposition

In 1992, Navy Chief Petty Officer Third Class Allen R. Schindler was violently murdered by his fellow shipmates on the basis of his homosexual orientation. This well-publicized hate crime, coupled with a mobilizing public opinion favoring gay rights, led to the need for the military to revisit its outright ban on homosexuals.

The debates that followed in 1993 divided Congress and military leaders into two distinct groups. Former President Clinton and select members of Congress viewed the ban as an issue of morality. It their opinion, it was simply wrong to discriminate on the basis of a service-member's sexual orientation. Those who advocated for the ban, however, claimed that the presence of gays is a detriment to unit cohesion. Although there was no evidence suggesting that units would not function as effectively with the presence of homosexuals, top officials felt that homosexuality was "incompatible" with military service. It was common sense that the presence of gays would violate privacy and comfort of other servicemembers and threaten the personal bonds integral for unit operation. The dilemma therefore was presented, correctly or incorrectly, as a decision between gay rights versus military effectiveness.6


The Circular Debate

In response to the lack of evidence validating the "unit cohesion" proposition, think tanks, interest groups, and professional researchers reacted by evaluating the issue. In 1993 the National Defense Research Institute study concluded that homosexuality was not germane to military service; the presence of gay people did not negatively impact unit cohesion, moral, good order, or discipline in any way whatsoever.7 Furthermore, U.S. allies who repealed similar policies reported no negative effects in response, despite allegations that the action would yield major disruptions among units.8 And more recently, the Government Accountability Office recorded discharging 320 linguists and 750 servicemembers with critical mission skills through 2003 in the midst of the War on Terror.9

Ultimately, the opposition's argument instigated a slew of data that disproved their own assertion. The unit cohesion argument could not survive when actually evaluated for validity and both public and military opinion shifted in favor of repeal.

This can explain the unexpected tone taken by Admiral Mullen in March 2010 before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"Allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do… No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."10

The chairman could have reiterated public support, changing military attitudes, and previous studies to defy the unit cohesion argument. That much would have been expected. However, the contribution of Admiral Mullen was unique because it addressed the morality of the policy. After 17 years of public debate the argument had come full circle. The issue arose as a question of morality in 1993 but was defeated by concerns for unit cohesion. By 2010, unit cohesion was invalidated and Admiral Mullen again established personal morals and institutional integrity as the basis for the policy review.

It would follow logic to assume Congress would be able to repeal the ban now that the only argument of the opposition has been rejected. But that is not the case. At the request of Secretary Gates, the study he proposed is currently being conducted to analyze how best to implement the repeal of DADT, which will closely mirror the study already conducted by the National Defense Research Institute in 1993. Members of Congress are delaying passage of the bill repealing the gay ban until the study is completed. Even with a shift in public opinion and the support of the highest ranking U.S. Military officials, the decision, once again, is delayed by the argument of "how will this affect unit cohesion?" And though the military's actions are intended be completely subordinate to civilian control, the long-disproved issues coined as "unit cohesion" and "military readiness" have allowed the military to defy public opinion and take a political position against repeal.

Direction of the Military

Clearly, logic and reason alone will not disrupt the illogical cycle of the debate and reverse the discriminatory law. Congress will need to commit to institutionalizing the social change that has already taken place in society in society at large. The actual transition of the military will be dependent on the attitudes and actions of the Officer Corps. Enforcing a change in military policy can be a challenge, especially when personal opposition exists or subordinate defiance can occur. But at both the civilian and military level, this is about leadership. Admiral Mullen could not have said it any better.

 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the author do not reflect the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Carnegie Council thanks Christina Madden for introducing Cadet Miller and making this article possible.   


NOTES

1 CSPAN. Gays and Lesbians in the Military. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. February 2, 2010.
2 Uniformed Code of Military Justice. Section 654 Title 10.
3 Gates, Gary J. "Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Men and Women in the U.S. Military: Updated Estimates." The Williams Institute. January 2010.
4 "Gates outlines study on letting gays served openly in the military." CNN.com. March 3, 2010.
5 The words "policy" and "law" are used interchangeably throughout this article. The ban on open homosexuality, however, was passed by an act of Congress and is indeed law.
6 Frank, Nathaniel. Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2009. Xix.
7 RAND National Defense Research Institute. Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy: Options and Assessment, 1993.
8 Frank, Nathaniel. Gays in Foreign Militaries 2010: A Global Primer. Palm Center White Paper. February 23, 2010.
9 Government Accountability Office (GAO). Military Personnel: Financial Cost and Loss of Critical Skills Due to DOD's Homosexual Conduct Policy Cannot Be Completely Estimated. February 23, 2006. GAO-05-299.
10 CSPAN. Gays and Lesbians in the Military. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. February 2, 2010.

Read More: Ethics, Human Rights, Ethics, United States

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