Up Front

The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: A Long Time Coming, But No More Time to Waste

Peter W. Singer

A few years ago, I wrote that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was akin to a dead man walking. Even with a president who supported the ban and a Congress unwilling to act, it was still evident that due to the combination of changing social trends and national security concerns, the policy’s days were over, it was just that the old culture warriors didn’t yet know it.

…Regardless of whether the decision happens within the next administration or takes a little longer, it is clear that the days of not asking and telling are numbered. The decision will come. National security concerns will ultimately weigh more than social politics, while the social politics themselves have changed.

It took several missteps and a stop and go process that has left no clear political winners, but lots of losers (there is now a battle between Sen. John McCain and the Obama Justice Department for who comes out most absurd-looking on this one), but it does finally look like this strange episode in American politics and national security has finally ended. The question for many is what happens next? Back in 2008, I wrote that

“…Even more, when the decision does come, its aftereffects will be surprising to many veteran culture warriors. While there will likely be lots of hysteria on talk radio and the blogs about how the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell will play out, the implementation of the change within the military will be less controversial and difficult than many might expect. This is one hot button issue that has cooled. Yes, there will likely be ugly statements and isolated incidents that will grab headlines. But when one looks at the actual data, it is clear that the fears expressed in the Clinton-era culture wars weigh less in our post-Real World, post 9-11 existence. The new generation of troops that is staffing the military of the 21st century tends to have a different worldview towards homosexuality. This generation also has far more important wars to fight.”

In the time since that was written, Brookings has conducted a series of studies and events on this question of what steps might be taken to transition successfully. This research continued to point to the next stage most likely to play out like a tempest in a teapot, especially compared to some of the massively extreme (and factually unsupported) predictions made during the hearings by such figures like Marine Commandant Amos, Defense Secretary Gates, and Senator Graham.

A key will be utilizing the lessons that are in place for us. Since the implementation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1993, the militaries of over 25 of our allied nations, including many of who are participating in combat operations with U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, have transitioned to allow open service. Earlier this year, along with the Palm Center at UCSB, we hosted officers from these countries at Brookings to share their insights on how implementation might be done in a smart and effective manner, lessons from which the recent DoD study was informed. Among the key findings that seem to stand out now were:

  • For all the Heated Debate Beforehand, the Actual Implementation is Likely to be Quite Dull. The allied officers and experts discussed how there were similar passionate debates, with serious worries about the effect on retention, officers claiming they would leave in droves if the policy changed, etc., all of which turned out not to happen. As Major General Simon Willis (ret.) of the Australian Defense Forces (ADF), who served in Vietnam and later led ADF personnel policy put it, “…lifting of the homosexual ban in the ADF was a bit like the Y2K issue. There is a lot of bluster and screaming and yelling and plans, and everyone had an opinion about it, but it came and went, and that was it, nothing more was heard about it. It was a non-event and it continues to be a non-event in Australia.” Similarly noted, Major-General Walter Semianiw, who commanded Canadian Forces (CF) in Afghanistan and is now in charge of CF personnel matters, “In hindsight, there was little, if any, obstruction. People didn’t leave the Canadian military; they just got on with the new policy.”
  • Leadership is the Key to Success. If the ban is lifted, servicemen and women will be looking to their superior officers for guidance. How leaders conduct themselves and communicate to their subordinates, even if they personally opposed the ban, will be key to the success of the policy change, but also the overall health of the force. Told Major-General Semianiw of the lessons he drew from Canada’s shift, “…As pedestrian as it sounds, it’s all about leadership. As in all things human resources or personal management, I do that, I command 17,000 men and women in uniform to run this HR system. Leaders set the direction, they set the tone and ensure that policy is, indeed, respected and practiced. To ensure that policy is useful, remember, it has to be enforced and it has to be seen to be enforced, that is the role of leadership, one of the key pieces that we learned from that experience.” 
  • Don’t Single Gays Out; Apply the Same Standards to All. Lieutenant Colonel Mick King, an officer of the Australian Army who served on deployments in East Timor and the Middle East, explained, “…the issue is not about a particular group. As a commander, what we are trying to do is create an environment that is open for all, and so, therefore, the policy needs to apply to all. So if there is something that occurs, you know, inappropriate conduct for a particular organization, we will all be treated exactly the same as everybody else, so that all servicemen, women, soldiers, sailors, marines and the like, they know that it applies to them. And, therefore, that develops that trust in the chain of command that everybody will be looked after and treated the same. And so the policy that needs to be set to support commanders needs to apply to everybody, not to a particular group.” 
  • Focus on Behavior. Much as promotion or discipline is not to be decided by one’s race or religion, so should it be with one’s sexual orientation. As Major General Willis noted, in the Australian military, “…our concern was based around inappropriate behavior, not about sexual orientation. It wasn’t about groups of people, it was about behavior. We kept it simple … Like if a soldier drank far too much or was acting inappropriately, it was seen as inappropriate behavior and dealt with that way.”
  • Don’t Drag the Policy Out. Multiple times, the foreign officers were asked whether, based on their experiences, a policy change should be handled slowly, in order to let the military acclimatize or to resolve details of implementation. Their answers repeatedly emphasized that once the decision had been made, to get it done as rapidly as possible. As Major General Willis of the ADF said, “I would recommend that the key decision is whether or not you’re going to go that way and the rest of it is just support to it. And if you can get the support wrapped up in it more quickly, I think it’s much better.”

(Note: For more on these lessons learned, please go to

But perhaps the most interesting lesson to me was the huge waste of time, military resources, and political energy that DADT will all seem upon reflection. Due to a botched political compromise that weak-kneed politicians were afraid to deal with for almost two decades, the US military lost the valuable services of over 13,000 skilled servicemen and women (and almost 100 million dollars in wasted budget spending) at a time we could least afford it. Indeed, many of our allies went through similarly heated and public debates about whether to transition to open service, and now they all look back on it all with a bit of chagrin. For them, and likely soon for us, the whole exercise is now looked upon as a huge distraction from what mattered. As Lieutenant Commander Craig Jones (ret.) of the British Royal Navy put it, “I’m not sure what we talked about in the military before we lifted the gay ban, but life afterwards became really, really dull, and we started talking about whether we should have more aircraft carriers and better equipment to deal with on the front line.”

Now that this vestige of the 1990s culture wars is past us, let’s hope that all of us –the Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the chattering class, who have wasted so much time on a policy gone wrong can similarly get back to focusing on the actually important issues in national security.