Reexamining "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

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Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace.

Amid the turmoil of the Iraq war and the scandal at Walter Reed, the last thing the nation's top military officer should want to do is generate more controversy by renewing the debate over gays in the military. Yet that's just what Marine General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has done in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, telling the paper that "I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts."

His comments have not surprisingly sparked a flurry of criticism from gay advocacy groups and lawmakers, but they are unlikely to change the status quo. Ultimately, many military officers believe, openly gay men and women will be allowed to serve in uniform, but it's just not going to happen very quickly. And for that, ironically, you can blame the most gay-friendly President ever: Bill Clinton.

Prior to Clinton taking office, the rule barring gays from serving was set solely by the President — and could be lifted by him, or her, as well. But once Clinton came in pledging to lift the ban, the opposition of his chairman of the Joint Chiefs — Colin Powell — and the hapless efforts by his first defense secretary, the late Les Aspin — ignited a firestorm on Capitol Hill. As the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise was hammered out, Congress took the extraordinary step of removing the policy from the President's hands and writing it into law.

Ever since that heated 1993 debate over the issue, senior military officers have tended to mute their opposition to gays in uniform simply because it shows them as being out of step with much of the nation. Not only that, cashiering gays from the military when the Pentagon is desperately trying to hold on to every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine doesn't seem to many people to make a lot of sense.

One of the reasons the military hasn't typically spoken out loudly on the topic is because they basically won the debate. Under the policy, gays may only serve if they keep their sexual orientation private and do not engage in homosexual activity. Commanders also are barred from asking about their orientation.

Pace probably would have been better served choosing different words to explain his opposition to gays and lesbians serving openly in uniform; the word "immoral" hasn't generally been used by senior officers to justify the ban. But Pace, the son of an Italian immigrant, carries a lot of his father's Old World values into his position. He made emotional remarks at an immigration hearing in Florida last July, citing the progress his family had made since his father emigrated to the New York area in 1914. "There is no other country on the planet that affords that kind of opportunity to those who come here," Pace, whose name means "peace" in Italian, told a Senate panel meeting in Miami.

"General Pace1s comments are outrageous, insensitive and disrespectful to the 65,000 lesbian and gay troops now serving in our armed forces," says C. Dixon Osburn, who heads the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a gay advocacy group in Washington (the 65,000 estimate is a UCLA study's estimate, the group said). "Our men and women in uniform make tremendous sacrifices for our country, and deserve General Pace's praise, not his condemnation. As a Marine and a military leader, General Pace knows that prejudice should not dictate policy. It is inappropriate for the Chairman to condemn those who serve our country because of his own personal bias. He should immediately apologize for his remarks." Tuesday afternoon, Pace stuck to his guns but backed away a bit from the morality angle. "I should have focused more on my support of the policy," he said in a statement, "and less on my personal moral views."

Three weeks ago, the first Marine seriously injured in Iraq declared he was gay and called for "don't ask, don't tell" to be tossed out. Retired Staff Sgt. Eric Fidelis Alva, 36, of San Antonio, lost his right leg to a land mine in the war's opening days. His wound got him a Purple Heart from President Bush, as well as a profile in People magazine and an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show. "It was like carrying this enormous secret that you want to share with someone," he said last month. "I eventually formed close bonds with other Marines and did confide in them. They treated me with the same respect and dignity afterward. We were still buddies." A 2005 study by the Government Accountability Office showed that about 10,000 service personnel have been discharged since the policy took effect, including 54 Arabic specialists.

Alva is not alone. Senator Hillary Clinton, who was first lady when Congress wrote "don't ask, don't tell" into law, wants it repealed. Retired Army general John Shalikashvili, who served as chairman after Powell, also wants it removed from the books. But far more important is the view from the ranks. A recent poll by the Military Times newspapers showed that only 30 percent of respondents think openly gay people should be allowed to serve, compared to 59 percent who are opposed. Until those numbers are reversed, "don't ask, don't tell" won't change.