Giving “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” the Boot

CAP Action experts discuss the urgency of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and how a repeal would affect military culture.

For more on this event please see its event page.


Sen. Charles Robb (D-VA), former governor of Virginia, conceded at a CAP Action event last Tuesday that “there will be difficulties” in repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military—and some armed service members will be unable to change. But he said “the cost of not doing anything” is far worse to our security, economy, and civil rights, and we must join those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender instead of asking them to “carry the fight by themselves.” Sen. Robb spoke as a panelist at the event, which was on implementing a repeal of the ban.

Sen. Robb was joined on the panel by Admiral John Hutson, former judge advocate general for the U.S. Navy and dean and president of the Franklin Pierce Law Center; and Louis Caldera, Senior Fellow at CAP Action and a former secretary of the Army. The panelists discussed the limited and manageable changes the military would need to make to smoothly and quickly repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  CAP Action Senior Fellow Lawrence J. Korb served as moderator, and CAP’s new report on implementing the ban, which Korb co-authored, was released at the event.

The report focuses particularly on the experiences of the United Kingdom, Canada, and Israel in lifting their bans on open service—and all of these countries managed the transition with little difficulty. Based on this review, the report recommends eight relatively minor administrative, bureaucratic, and legal changes that must be made to the U.S. military’s internal regulations for an easy transition: training, legal issues arising from repeal, housing and common-use facilities, benefits, conduct, discipline and promotion, retroactive compensation and reinstatement, and health concerns.

The report closely examines the three countries because of their cultural and military similarities to the United States. Those three nations dropped their ban on gays serving openly in the military around the same time the United States decided not to, and when they did, “all of the apocalyptic scenarios…did not come true,” Korb explained.

Some worry about the repeal’s effects on unit cohesion. But repeal actually puts the military in the position “to enhance unit cohesion” because it’s detrimental to cohesion and readiness to have “second-class citizens,” Hutson said. “The foot dragging will stop” when people realize how it will positively affect cohesion.

Repealing the ban is “a big yawn,” Hutson continued, because our country and military “are so ready for this” and all it takes is a little “maturity and courage.” All of our major allies have repealed the ban, and the countries that haven’t include Russia, Belarus, and North Korea. “In whose company should we be?” he asked.

Caldera said that to implement any change in our military requires “strong leadership” on the part of civilian and army command leaders to set “the right tone at the top.” If repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is going to work, the army “leadership has to embrace it, stand behind it” and explain why it’s both right and necessary—so it’s not simply an order from the commander-in-chief. This is exactly what Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did back in February when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Caldera.

Korb added that the marines are often the most resistant service to change and could therefore be the most resistant to an overturn of the ban. But Sen. Robb pointed out that this “fundamental disagreement” that is “part of the somewhat macho culture” in the marines can change. The next generation does not “have these hangups,” he explained, and after all, the marines are “good at following orders.” With the right leadership, they can change and see it in action and wonder why they so aggressively opposed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he added.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” also hurts military recruitment because of the tremendous diversity young people are exposed to and learning to value. With “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in place, the military risks looking unrepresentative of the rest of our society. Caldera explained “reality has changed” and the military’s position on "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" risks coming across as being an "intolerant employer."

On top of that, “you probably end up saving money…because if you push someone out,” you need to recruit and train more, Korb argued. “About 4,000 people a year get out because they’re tired of living a lie.”

The U.S. military is supposed to “defend human rights and the rule of law,” Hutson said. It’s inexcusable to allow the armed services to be exempt from such rights because it’s only a human right if it’s applied to all humans, he added.

Just as Barry Goldwater said in the 1990s, “You don’t have to be straight to be in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight.”

For more on this event please see its event page. 

More from CAP on "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell":

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