The Damning Paradox of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

June 2, 2009

Lt. Dan Choi of the New York National Guard is a graduate of West Point, an infantry officer, and Iraq war veteran. Choi even has a degree in Arabic language. These skills and experiences can be invaluable in the complex wars of Iraq or Afghanistan. But the next time his unit is sent into harm’s way, Choi’s fellow soldiers and his nation won’t benefit from his service. Want to know why? Don’t ask, if you don’t want me to tell.

But Dan Choi decided to tell. And so, his truthful admission that he was gay triggered a discharge process that will occur in coming weeks.

Homosexuals have served with the U.S. military going back to Baron von Steuben at Valley Forge. But under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), a weak-willed compromise forged by Bill Clinton during the “culture wars” of the 1990s, gay, lesbian, and bisexual citizens serving in the military either must hide or lie about their sexual orientation or else be discharged, with their benefits revoked.

No one still argues that sexual orientation determines one’s skill at the job. As Senator Barry Goldwater once said, “You don’t have to be straight to be in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight.”

Instead, DADT is typically justified by two unproved assumptions offered by the Pentagon back in 1994. The first is the claim that allowing gays to serve openly would harm the public’s view of the military, risking the “acceptability of military service.” The second is the claim that allowing gays would destroy cohesion in the force — the “mutual trust and confidence among service members.”

But times have changed and, most importantly, so too have the perceptions that would have once backed these claims. The generation joining today’s military is not hung up on the old culture wars and has grown up in a different world, one in which openly gay figures populate our media, workplace, and politics.

This change is also playing out in the military. In a Zogby poll of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, 23 percent stated that they knew that someone in their unit was gay, including 21 percent of those in combat units.

These emerging facts on the ground create a sort of “lose-lose” for old-school defenders of DADT today. You can’t argue that the U.S. military is the best, most professional force in the world today and yet simultaneously claim that having gays in it will deeply undermine its morale or effectiveness.

Indeed, scores of active duty troops and veterans have come out of the closet. They range from Marine Sgt. Eric F. Alva, the first American wounded in the Iraq War, and Army Sgt. Brian Hughes, who served there in the elite Rangers, all the way up to retired generals and admirals.

Similarly, in places like Afghanistan, our forces have effectively operated in combat with over 20 NATO members, despite the fact that they allow gays to serve (as does the Israeli military). And American soldiers increasingly work and live in close quarters with civilian government and non-governmental employees, who are not bound by any restrictions on their sexual orientation.

These experiences create a damning paradox inherent in the DADT policy of 2009. Because Dan Choi told the truth about his sexual orientation, he has to leave his unit, solely due to old perceptions that no longer hold true. But, if he next joins the British military, CIA, or State Department, he could still deploy into the field with his unit.

Since 1994, over 13,000 servicemen and women have either resigned or been discharged because of the DADT policy. Almost 1,000 had skills that are now referred to as “high demand/low density,” such as pilots, engineers, and language experts. In a time of budget austerity, driving these qualified troops out of the service has cost more than $400 million. For that amount, we could have bought over 2,800 up-armored Humvee’s or 400,000 flak vests.

When running for president, Barack Obama made a commitment to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; but by one report, 218 service members have been discharged under the policy since he and the new Congress took office. It is now well past time to put national security over social politics, and to allow patriotic and capable Americans like Lt. Dan Choi to continue to serve their nation.