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The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and Donít Ask, Donít Tell (DADT)

by

RADM Alan M. Steinman, USPHS/USCG (Ret)

Recent comments by ADM Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in response to a question following his address to the West Point graduating class earlier this month, have stirred optimism that the Pentagon is finally ready to relinquish its long standing opposition to gays serving openly in the military. ADM Mullen said: [Donít Ask, Donít Tell] is a law and we follow it. Should the law change, the military will carry that out, too."

Although optimism may be warranted, Iím a little more guarded in my interpretation of his remarks. After all, he is simply stating the obvious: the military must follow the law of the land. Congress makes the law; Congress issued the DADT law in 1993; Congress can repeal DADT; if so, the Department of Defense (DoD), as part of the Executive Branch of government, will carry out the law. This, to me, is not particularly newsworthy. After all, if he had wanted to, he could have been far more positive, acknowledging that gays and lesbians are currently contributing to the nationís war efforts, putting their lives on the line just like their straight counterparts, and deserve the same dignity and respect as does anyone else in uniform. But he didnít say that. He simply said what he had to.

On the other hand, we should be encouraged that he didnít reiterate the previous DoD mantra that gays serving openly would undermine unit morale, be a detriment to unit cohesion, and thus degrade combat readiness. That he didnít restate these assumptions (and they are indeed assumptions, since theyíve never been demonstrated to be true) that underlay the DADT law, is decidedly a good thing. In so doing, he was following the lead of the current Under Secretary of Defense, David Chu, who, in a letter to Oregonís Senator Wyden last year said that current military policy simply carries out the DADT law, but that "the [Defense] Department will, of course, follow Congressional direction on homosexual conduct."

I must admit that I was encouraged by Under Secretary Chuís letter: he could easily have reiterated the "unit morale, unit cohesion, combat readiness" argument for the DoD wanting to keep DADT, but he did not. THAT, to me, was significant. ADM Mullenís comments to the graduating cadets were simply a reiteration of DoDís current position.

Now, with all that said, ADM Mullen and the other Joint Chiefs most definitely have a big role to play in future deliberations on the DADT law. For gays to be able to serve openly (and I much prefer the term "honestly"), either Congress must repeal the law, or the federal court system must find the DADT law unconstitutional. A blow was struck in that latter direction just this week when the 9th District Court of Appeals reinstated USAF (Reserve) Major Wittís lawsuit against her being discharged under DADT. But judicial action to repeal DADT is likely many years away. Far more likely is a Congressional repeal, assuming the Democrats win the White House and maintain majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

But hereís the rub: even with a sympathetic Commander-in-Chief and with Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, itís not certain DADT can be repealed (in my humble opinion, anyway) unless the Joint Chiefs give at least a tacit approval. There are enough conservative Democrats and lots of conservative Republicans who likely would oppose repealing DADT unless the Joint Chiefs, governmentís experts on all things military, say that allowing gays to serve honestly wonít be a problem. The JCS donít have to jump up and down with joy over the issue; they simply have to state that the military has the leadership to make it work, as they did with integrating African -Americans into the military (despite fierce opposition from within the ranks) and with expanding the role of women in the military (also met with opposition, which continues even today in some conservative circles).

If the military has anything, it has quality leadership. That is its strongest component. So the Joint Chiefs need to emphasize that the militaryís leadership will ensure that gays serving honestly will not degrade morale, cohesion or combat readiness. If they can make that statement, most opposition (with the exception of those who have religious or moral arguments against homosexuals) will melt away. To get to that point, though, we are going to need the support of the senior non-commissioned officers in the military, particularly the most senior E-9s. If this community maintains a strong opposition, particularly if they do it publicly, it will make it difficult for the JCS to endorse repeal of DADT. The JCS will, of course, seek the opinions of the senior enlisted troops for advice, for that is where the rubber meets the road in the armed forces. So these senior enlisted advisors also have to assure that gays serving honestly will be "okay."

The flip side of all of the above is, itself, a strong argument. For the military to admit that gays serving honestly will create an unmanageable problem is to admit that the military lacks the leadership to manage the troops. It says that racism and sexism can be outlawed and that racists and sexists wonít be tolerated, but homophobes are just too much for the military to deal with. I donít think the military leadership wants to be put in that situation publicly, but that is precisely where they are now, with the current DADT law and the unproven philosophical nonsense that created it (e.g. morale, cohesion and combat readiness).

Bottom line: ADM Mullenís comments are at best neutral, but the role of the Joint Chiefs in the future is absolutely critical. Hopefully, the next president will choose his/her Joint Chiefs with that in mind.

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