Politics & Policy

Implementing Repeal

Lifting “don’t ask” should be a step-by-step process.

Now that Congress has decided to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the armed forces, the military faces the real challenge: implementation.

The new policy will be put in place when the president, the secretary of defense, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) have all certified that it can be done in such a way as to minimize any adverse impact on military effectiveness. On the one hand, President Obama would like to see the revised law put into action as soon as possible, and Admiral Mullen, chairman of the JCS, has been pushing for repeal for some time (indeed, he started before consulting with the service chiefs).

On the other, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has expressed concern about the policy’s impact on military readiness and effectiveness, and he has indicated that it could be some time before he certifies the change. However, Secretary Gates has also indicated that he is leaving soon, and President Obama may very well replace him with someone who thinks differently. And this is the great danger: that the repeal will be expedited for political reasons no matter the impact on the military.

The Pentagon report on the issue acknowledges that lifting the ban will seriously and adversely affect the health and effectiveness of the U.S. military. To begin with, lifting the ban will lead to increased administrative nightmares driven by outside political groups with goals that transcend national security.

It is true that the Pentagon has already addressed some of the more basic concerns voiced by opponents of lifting the ban: Fraternization rules, which currently prohibit senior-subordinate relations between men and women, will apply to homosexual relations as well; public displays of affection while in uniform are not permitted; no special arrangement will be made for billeting. (This last one is likely to cause the greatest problems for commanders.)

The fact is that homosexuals have always served honorably in the military, and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was designed to help them. As a result of this policy, homosexuals who are willing to subordinate their sexual orientation to their duty have been allowed for the most part to serve without interference.

This will change once the repeal is put in place, as outside groups with a broader homosexual agenda are thrown into the mix. The irony is that this agenda will be pursued at the expense of currently serving homosexuals, who are more concerned about serving their country than validating a homosexual “lifestyle.” 

The Pentagon report claims that the key to “overcoming resistance” is “training and education.” As it is, military members are subjected to politically correct “sensitivity training” on a variety of issues, e.g., sexual harassment and “diversity.” Once homosexuals become a favored group, things will only get worse. The Marines and the Army will receive sensitivity training in spades because, as the report shows, those services, the mission of which is to conduct close ground combat, are the most “resistant” of all. Indeed, the report reveals that 45 percent of Army troops and nearly 60 percent of Marines (67 percent of those in Marine combat arms: infantry, artillery, and armor) who have been in combat zones say that repeal would have a negative impact on unit effectiveness.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that implementation will be “staggered,” starting with the support establishments (where unit cohesion is less important) and leaving combat units for last. This would be in line with the practice of other countries that permit military service by open homosexuals.

Such an approach is also in keeping with the “functional imperative” of the U.S. military — fighting and winning the nation’s wars. The fact is that advocates of repeal never identified a single benefit of repealing the ban when it comes to recruiting, retention, unit effectiveness, and readiness of the force. Staggering implementation is a way to minimize the adverse consequences of Congress’s action.

— Mackubin Thomas Owens is editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). His book, US Civil-Military relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain, will be published by Continuum in January. 

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.


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