“There is no right time to right a wrong—there is always time to right a wrong,” said Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) at a Center for American Progress Action Fund event Monday afternoon. At the event, Rep. Tauscher took part in a panel that outlined the failure of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell policy,” which requires U.S. soldiers to mask their sexual orientation for fear of persecution or discharge. She also spoke of the introduction of her bill, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which seeks to overturn the military’s current policy.
Joining Rep. Tauscher on the panel were CAPAF Senior Fellow Lawrence J. Korb and Dr. Nathaniel Frank, senior research fellow at the University of California Santa Barbara’s Palm Center, adjunct professor at New York University, and author of Unfriendly Fire.
Tauscher responded to criticism surrounding the timing of the bill, a move she says “will break down the final barrier for service in the military.” Many have suggested that choosing to fight a battle for equal rights in the military in a time of economic instability is irresponsible. But she reminded the panel that the bill is important because it “would allow those currently fighting in the battlefield [in Iraq and Afghanistan] to no longer do so with one arm tied behind their backs.”
Korb provided a historical context for the current law, noting that the military had always had a heavy hand in crafting the legislation. “Although military reports concluded that gays were not a security threat,” Korb asserted, “the government covered them up. This policy was created behind closed doors.” As early as the end of World War II, the government commissioned studies that time after time concluded the same thing—that homosexual soldiers, serving openly, did not present a risk to the military.
But this information did not reach the public or affect military policy, and the panel noted that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has operated to the detriment to the armed forces. Through the enforcement of the policy, the U.S. military has lost significant resources. By letting go otherwise qualified soldiers, the military has lost over $363 million in invested training since 1993, Rep. Tauscher noted. And she added that the military has also lost over 12,000 qualified soldiers due to the policy.
In sum, “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been a monumental failure—fiscally and culturally—for both the military and the greater American public. “The issue is not whether homosexuality is incompatible with military [policy],” noted Frank, “the issue is knowledge—knowing about these people in the military, and whether America can confront homosexuality head on.” He stressed that the rejection of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy requires a cultural shift—the redefinition of the quintessential American solider.
Frank said that the discourse surrounding “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been rooted primarily in fear. “This was about fear. This was about misunderstandings,” he said when speaking about the current law. He added that the law has actually broken down unit cohesion, undermined trust, and deeply embarrassed soldiers—the opposite of what it initially aimed to do.
In response, the panel offered working solutions that could reinforce the changes brought by the potential passage of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act. For instance, the creation of an independent working group of former military officials—which Tauscher recommended—could help ease the transition of the military into the new policy.
Ultimately, the law seeks to codify what has already happened. More Americans than ever support gays openly serving in the military—and many of these supporters are returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. “At the end of the day,” Frank concluded, “this is really about law and rhetoric catching up with something that has always been there.”