Don’t ask, don’t tell: Best to keep it


Congressional hearings on the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy will soon be televised and will surely captivate a deeply divided nation. No matter which side of the debate you passionately support, there are subtleties to challenge everyone’s comfort zone.

If you have not served in the military, it might help to consider some of the language from the current law (10 U.S.C. § 654) on the matter:

“… There is no constitutional right to serve in the armed forces …

“The primary purpose of the armed forces is to prepare for and to prevail in combat should the need arise …

“One of the most critical elements in combat capability is unit cohesion, that is, the bonds of trust among individual service members that make the combat effectiveness of a military unit greater than the sum of the combat effectiveness of the individual unit members …

“Military life is fundamentally different from civilian …

“The military society is characterized by its own laws, rules, customs, and traditions, including numerous restrictions on personal behavior, that would not be acceptable in civilian society …

“[R]egulate a member’s life for 24 hours each day beginning at the moment the member enters military status and not ending until that person is discharged or otherwise separated from the armed forces …

“The pervasive application of the standards of conduct is necessary because members of the armed forces must be ready at all times for worldwide deployment to a combat environment …

“[T]he potential for involvement of the armed forces in actual combat routinely make it necessary for members of the armed forces involuntarily to accept living conditions and working conditions that are often spartan, primitive, and characterized by forced intimacy with little or no privacy …

“The presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability …”

I never thought I would say this about something created in Congress, but those excerpts make a pretty good summary of the problem.

This law was passed by a Democratically-controlled Congress in 1993, with Republican full support, after considerable debate when President Bill Clinton attempted to reverse the military’s policy that ”Homosexuality is incompatible with military service.”

Following the law’s enactment, President Clinton implemented a policy that skirts the effects of that law by focusing on sexual behavior rather than a person’s sexual inclinations, discouraging any questions about sexual preference, thereby allowing gays and lesbians to serve only if they keep the matter to themselves. That policy remains in effect and is known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT).

The Obama administration is determined that gays and lesbians should be able to openly serve, and the games are about to begin.

I’m the skunk at the garden party when my fellow conservatives discuss gay marriage and hear my opinion that a gay or lesbian couple should be free to marry.

After all, while I squirm in discomfort at the notion of two men kissing to seal their wedding vows, it isn’t about me and my discomfort, it’s about them and their love and commitment to each other, which is none of my business.

So perhaps you’ll grant me the latitude that I’m not mired in anti-gay sentiment when I say DADT is best left alone.

I assume that countless gays and lesbians have served their country well, even had distinguished military careers and earned decorations for valor in combat, while not revealing their sexual identity. This has probably been so in every war since men killed each other with swords and arrows.

Having to keep such a big part of you secret, fearing discovery and retribution even while you know you are good at your job, must cause untold heartache the rest of us will never know.

It seems patently unfair to gays and lesbians in our military to require them to deny who they are sexually, but our military’s purpose is not to be fair to everyone. Its purpose is combat readiness to win wars.

I believe openly serving gays and lesbians would diminish that readiness.

Allow me to focus on the male side of this issue.

Whether you are gay or straight, you might wonder how you would perform while being shot at in battle. How does a 21-year-old young man overcome paralyzing fear in combat? How does he keep his composure and focus on his job when the terror of a near-miss flashes through his body in a heartbeat? The glue that holds troops together under stress is unit cohesion.

Men with combat jobs, from infantry rifleman to medic, artillery batteries, helicopter crews, aircraft carrier launch teams and countless others hone their skills by drill-drill-drill, each with a specific job that is interconnected to others they will rely on to work in unison when the combat trigger is pulled.

The unit trains and drills together, they eat together, party and laugh together, sometimes share tears over “Dear John” letters together, and sometimes they sleep, shower, toilet and dress together with zero privacy.

They do some things together nobody else would dream of, like an infantry platoon in the Vietnam War crossing a stream, then half of them standing guard impatiently waiting their turn while the other half dropped their pants to check for leeches, checking between each other’s butt-cheeks and helping to burn them off with a lit cigarette.

Maybe the trusted guy checking between a buddy’s cheeks was gay, but it helped at the time that the others didn’t know.

In combat, troops trust each other to do the right things to protect one another, even under fire, making a closeness and a bond that is hard to describe in words.

Men in combat are not just named boxes on an organization chart, they are brothers watching each other’s back. There is a fear in combat that surpasses the fear of dying – a man’s fear that should he panic under fire and fail to do his job, that he might lose his brothers’ trust or he might lose their lives, and that is feared more than anything. That is unit cohesion.

Unit cohesion cannot be ordered; you can’t put your finger on it; it is an ethereal thing that grows on its own from the ingredients of training, discipline and teamwork. Anything that introduces division or strife works against unit cohesion and combat readiness.

Maybe no one should be bothered that the man in the next bunk, or with him in the open latrine or shower, is gay. Small-minded men who might entertain themselves by making a gay man’s life miserable should certainly grow up, but like it or not, testosterone trumps sensitivity in combat units, and commanders don’t need the distraction of worrying about the safety of an openly gay man.

Perhaps it is naive for a 20-year-old to keep his distance because he wonders if an openly gay man might hit on him. It might be irrational for a man with a gay superior to wonder if a favored subordinate has a special after-hours relationship with the boss.

The addition of openly gay men serving lengthy cruises in the tight quarters of a submarine may not create friction in the crew; there may be no romantic involvement where it doesn’t belong; the command structure might not be aggravated by the baggage of sexual attraction like affection, favoritism, jealousy, resentment or alienation.

Maybe none of those things will happen. But with the stark reminder of Tiger Woods, whether gay or straight, we are all wired with a sex drive so strong that our deepest urges often lead from temptation to trouble.

We moderate those urges in the military, at least reducing the trouble, with separate quarters for men and women, something we can’t do with the same sex.

Little things cook the brew of unit cohesion, and gays having the freedom to make their sexual preference known in military units will not help.

Sure, it is unfair to gays and lesbians to require them to keep their sexual identity under wraps, but DADT makes it possible for them to serve despite the prohibitive law, and the purpose of the military is to be ready to fight, not to provide a forum for individual rights.

It is not the needs of those who wish to serve that should prevail, but the needs of the fighting force.

I am not troubled that I differ with the top brass at the Pentagon, who are on board with the Obama administration’s push to eliminate DADT. The more stars on the uniform, it seems, the more politically savvy is the one wearing the uniform.

One recent example is Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, who was asked by reporters in the aftermath of the Ft. Hood shooting about the shooter’s suspected Muslim jihadist tendencies. The general cautioned that we must take care to preserve diversity.

Maybe the air is too thin way up there at the top where they seem to focus too much on which way the political wind is blowing instead of putting the interest of all our troops and our country first.

DADT is the best compromise between bad options.

[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City may be reached at]