A premier military journal this week published an article examining and critiquing the military's policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT), which bans gay men and women from serving in the Armed Forces. Now, critics of the Obama administration's wavering on the controversial ban are wondering whether this is the first sign of a change in attitude. Is DADT finally on the chopping block?
The final 2009 issue of Joint Forces Quarterly contains an in-depth article by Colonel Om Prakash entitled "The Efficacy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell." It lays out a devastating assessment of DADT. Beginning with the origins of and early arguments for the policy in the Clinton administration, Prakash goes on to demonstrate that the empirical evidence in support of DADT has never surfaced.
Colonel Prakash Makes His Case
Prakash lays out the origins of DADT in Bill Clinton's campaign promise to end the ban on gays in the military, and the fierce opposition in Congress and the armed forces. He summarizes the fears that led to DADT, categorizing these as health risks, lifestyle risks, and threats to "unit cohesion." But, Prakash argues, the first two categories quickly fell away, given that STDs and promiscuity are factors of the human condition rather than sexual orientation. Unit cohesion remained as the only argument that actually made it into the law.
And yet unit cohesion has proven incredibly problematic, as Prakash points out. Summarizing the research on social cohesion, he concludes that being gay should not be a necessary impediment to a unit's ability to operate. He goes on to investigate the question of whether sexual orientation is a choice, and refers to the military's practice of protecting all immutable characteristics against discrimination. In some of his most persuasive writing in the article, he summarizes the bizarre disconnect with which service personnel are asked to live, by which they are to obey a code of honor and simultaneously lie about who they are (since one can be gay in the military as long as no one knows). This is, clearly, troubling to gay personnel: "The law also forces unusual personal compromises wholly inconsistent with a core military value—integrity," Prakash says. But it also worries their commanders who, as Prakash writes, are placed "in a position where they are expected to know everything about their troops except this one aspect." All of this, the Colonel argues, undermines exactly the unity cohesion DADT was intended to protect.
Finally, and most tellingly, Prakash lays out a clear vision for a world after DADT, arguing that the armed forces will quickly adapt to the new order and accept its implications, particularly given that many of them already know gay personnel in their units and have no problem with them. The future, he effectively argues, is now.
Of course, these are arguments that all of us familiar with DADT have heard (and made) many times before. So why is this article anything special? Partly because of the context in which it appears. Joint Forces Quarterly is a highly influential military journal, one directed at an audience within the armed forces. The article's author, Colonel Prakash, is detailed to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the article was the winning entry in a writing contest sponsored by the Defense Secretary. Furthermore, the article was reviewed before publication by the office of Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All of these connections to the executive branch have led to widespread speculation that the Pentagon, acting on the will of the president, is beginning to clear the way and lay out the intellectual and factual arguments for overturning DADT.
If that speculation is correct, it would go a long way toward repairing a rift between President Obama and the gay community over a host of issues from DADT to court cases defending the Defense of Marriage Act. However, while the President can establish a degree of urgency around DADT (or not), the policy is in fact law, and as such requires congressional action to overturn it. In short, while an article in a military journal helps to normalize the atmosphere around DADT, if you want to see the policy ended soon, the best thing to do is still to call your member of congress.