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Saturday, January 1, 2000

Telling, Asking and Lying
The Official Military Policy

by Clinton Fein

As the upcoming presidential election thrusts the military's policy on homosexuality in the armed forces under scrutiny, once again, the same players who chimed in during the heated debate in 1993 are rearing their heads with a stream of opinions that cloud the landscape. Lost amidst the polemic hyperbole and politics of eager presidential candidates - most whom wouldn't know how to spell combat - is the truth and the opinions of those who really count - those in the trenches who are governed by a confusing and hypocritical policy. More disturbing than the rhetoric is the notion that a country that employs a military machine to protect and defend its freedoms and the constitution that defines them, can so flagrantly disenfranchise those at the forefront of the battle.

The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue" policy found its origins in a personal vendetta. Scorned and humiliated that another Southern democrat of dubious political pedigree had captured the democratic nomination in 1992, an embittered senator from Georgia, Sam Nunn, embarked on a mission to derail the early Clinton presidency by undermining his authority and embarrassing him by shining a spotlight on his naïveté. Ill advised by dangerously inexperienced advisors barely out of school and a military leadership resentful of a draft-dodging, pot-smoking Commander in Chief, Clinton's first real Act as President resulted in the most disastrously confusing policy that to this day is responsible for the death, harassment and anguish of servicemembers gay and straight.

The new policy was intended as a compromise between allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military and adhering to the warnings of military leaders and advisors who claimed their open presence would threaten military readiness, weaken America's might and create a climate of distrust that would erode unit cohesion - achieved usually through honor codes, trust and integrity.

From the moment Sam Nunn tricked the media into opportunistic photo ops showing the close sleeping quarters of servicemembers in submarines, the cost of the compromise -- financial, emotional and in terms of human life and national security -- has been considerable.

A few of the more public examples are the murder of Allen Schindler in Sasebo, Japan immediately following the implementation of the policy; the discharge of Timothy McVeigh after the military violated the Electronic Privacy Act and spirit and intent of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy by manipulating online service provider, America Online, into revealing the identity of a fictitious user name; the very public and ironic discharge proceedings against Steve May, elected representative from Arizona; and the more recent murder of PFC Barry Winchell in his barracks at Fort Campbell with its subsequent trial and conviction.

If these incidents represent the intent and spirit of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, either there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what that intent and spirit of the policy is, or the military, congress and the President have all failed miserably in achieving their objectives.

The problem, at its core and inherent in its very name has to do with freedom of speech. "Don't Tell", means exactly what it says. It places an unconstitutional restraint on speech that ought to be protected. It also means "Do Lie". The first argument one can expect to encounter is that servicemembers are not free to enjoy the same constitutional privileges as the Americans for whose, ironically, they are fighting to protect. This is true. In almost every case that has gone before the courts, including the Supreme Court, the position is very clear. The military is a special institution, and as such, deference is given to their policies and interpretations above any constitutional protections afforded American civilians. As French statesman Georges Clemenceau once stated, "Military justice is to justice as military music is to music". Unfortunately it's not only military justice, as the President recently stated. It involves congress and the courts.

People who initially criticized the policy, but have since come to realize that it is even more effective in rooting out homosexuals than its predecessor ever was, continue to assert that the presence of open homosexuals in a military organization is fundamentally incompatible with good order and discipline. Carl Mundy, a retired commandant of the Marine Corps and participatory author of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue" recently penned an op-ed in The New York Times, stating as much. Commandant Mundy did not explain the Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars and other medals and honors that have been bestowed upon gay servicemembers throughout history. Or the promotions of openly gay Marines such as Justin Elzie, under his own command. Commandant Mundy went on to provide a list of reasons as to why openly gay - or avowed homosexual - servicemembers are incompatible with good order and discipline with Doublethink that would make George Orwell envious.

The first claim is that young Americans who join the services bring with them the values of society and that to date society has yet to fully recognize or socially accept the homosexual lifestyle. Assuming that one's sexual orientation is a lifestyle - certain lifestyles are not socially accepted in the military, and many are, in fact, inappropriate for the military. When one joins the military, it's the military lifestyle that becomes the only one by which a servicemember is bound to serve.

Young, drug-imbibing singles have to relinquish the characteristics of their lifestyle, adulterous swingers have to relinquish the characteristics of their lifestyle, racist skinheads, anti-Semites, anti-Catholics, anti-anyone or anything, no matter how socially acceptable or unacceptable, depending on the community standards by which such acceptance is evaluated. All are required to adapt their lifestyles to a military lifestyle, and one that is compatible with serving and performing within the strictures and structures of a military environment. It is the role and duty of the military to expunge societal influences that impact morale and good order, whether it's racial, religious or sexual prejudice. If racism is accepted in say, Jasper, Texas, does that mean it's okay for the military to accommodate such behavior in its ranks?

Commandant Mundy then proceeds to rattle off the same party line that was used to preclude black servicemembers from serving in the military prior to President Truman's Executive Order that changed the practice. "Conduct that is widely rejected by a majority of Americans can undermine the trust that is essential to creating and maintaining the sense of unity that is critical to the success of a military organization operating under the very different and difficult demands of combat" he claims.

Some critics will immediately respond by stating that the experience of being black and being gay are very different - and that it is insulting to compare the two. Inevitably they will quote Colin Powell the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who in 1993 pointed to the "profoundly behavioral" characteristics of homosexuals as opposed to the "benignly innate" characteristics of blacks, as a reason for retaining the ban on homosexuals in the military. No one is suggesting for a second that the experience of being black or being gay is the same. It's the shared experience of discrimination that is equally unpleasant and dangerous no matter how you slice it.

Commandant Mundy has unwittingly, however, hit the proverbial nail on the head. Conduct is the operative word here. If indeed, under the difficult and demanding operations of combat, homosexuals are, although unlikely, to be engaging in sexual activity - conduct - in the foxholes and trenches, one can appreciate the extent to which this might negatively impact order, morale and good discipline. The same, however, would hold true if heterosexual intercourse - conduct - were to occur during an inappropriate time and place under combat conditions.

This is where the greatest problem with the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy rises to the surface. Self-expression, the mere articulation of who a person identifies as - a simple statement to that effect - is considered conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman (or woman). In short, engaging in anal sex and simply expressing that you're gay is the same violation under this policy and the punishments equally harsh. A rebuttable presumption that stating you're gay means you will, unless you can prove otherwise, engage in conduct that is forbidden. A recent investigation at Lackland Air Force base revealed the official instructions to servicemembers, who had done nothing more than utter a word that revealed their orientation - told, were that a lie or retraction would allow them to continue serving. As if simply stating you're heterosexual means you would automatically engage in heterosexual misconduct. The redemption from your misconduct? Lie.

There are a few national and local organizations run by gay activists that do not understand the military, and have a political agenda that is based on nothing other than a perceived injustice with little experience or insight into the culture of the military. They do an injustice to organizations that do understand the military, are representative of uniformed military advisers and that have a genuine interest in reforming its policies and participating in its evolution.

It's also worth mentioning that the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a highly regarded watchdog organization with a sole purpose to monitor and redress abuses of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, is often characterized as a gay organization. To the extent that an organization - a legal entity that exists independently of the person or persons creating it - can have a sexual orientation, the reality is that the organization monitors abuse of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy regardless of the sexual orientation of the victims. Heterosexual women in particular and, to a lesser extent, heterosexual men are also caught within the web of this flawed policy. Former Commandant Mundy appears to be unfamiliar with "lesbian baiting" -- the practice of pressuring and harassing women by calling, or threatening to call them, lesbians. "Women frequently are accused as lesbians in retaliation for rebuffing sexual advances by men or reporting sexual abuse, and as a result do not report sexual harassment or assault out of fear that they will be accused as lesbian, investigated and discharged. Other women report that they give in to sexual demands specifically to avoid being rumored to be a lesbian."

According to the SLDN gay related discharges have increased 86% over the past five years. The Pentagon discharged 1,149 service members in 1998, compared to 997 the year before year. This is the highest number since 1987. The Air Force discharged 415 service members, surpassing the Navy at 345. Army discharges jumped by more than 100, to 312 discharges. The Marine Corps discharged 77. Women comprised 27% of gay discharges, although women represent only 14% of the active duty force. The Army had the worst record, with 36% of its gay discharges being women.

While abuse under this system is horrific and sometimes deadly, not all commanders or enlisted leaders engage in abuse of the policy. However a climate of accommodation - excuses and justifications as posited by supposed leaders like former Commandant Mundy - is at the very heart of the problem. The notion "Don't Tell" not only places an unconstitutional restraint on speech, it also requires that a servicemember lie to a superior officer. In adherence with military policy (and signed, sealed and delivered orders of Congress and the President), unit cohesion justifications demanding integrity and honesty can only be achieved through lying.

Certain members of congress have recently introduced proposals that would resurrect the draft. These legislators lament the availability of able recruits, while encouraging the investigation and discharge of well-trained - at considerable expense - servicemembers who are extraordinarily competent and top performers as deemed by the military. During wartime the military uses what is known as a "Stop-Loss" policy. Indeed, when the "bonds of trust" that are imperative for unit cohesion and combat effectiveness are the most crucial, the military employs a policy that suspends any discharge proceedings against gay servicemembers until the mission is accomplished or war is over. The threat, it appears, only applies during peacetime. If the gravest threat by the presence of open homosexuals is to unit cohesion, discipline and morale, why is such a grave and dangerous phenomenon ignored at the most crucial moment?

"The military is unlike most other institutions. Its purpose is not to turn a profit, like a business, nor to provide an environment for individuality or self-expression like a university," Mundy states. " The military exists to protect the nation by fighting and winning wars". While the collection of our tax dollars does not require, nor inspire an expectation, that our taxes turn profit, it is our right and duty as citizens to oversee and evaluate how our tax revenues are being utilized. If former Commandant Mundy were a CFO in any profit seeking business he would be scouring the employment classifieds.

And so we are left with a policy that not only curtails speech but demands lying. Perhaps lying is appropriate these days. After all, the current Commander in Chief was impeached for lying under oath. The other free speech violation under this policy, although seldom adhered to is not to ask. But we should be asking. The questions we should be asking? Is a policy that is designed to create liars supposed to foster trust and bolster military readiness? Does denying expression - fermenting a climate of suspicion that requires lying to create a false impression that hidden truths will make any difference in a combat situation - engender unit cohesion?

As the current Presidential hopefuls throw their support - suddenly - behind this misguided and inherently unworkable policy, all we can do is ask ourselves what kind of leaders we want representing this nation. Liars? Complacent and complicit liars advocating institutionalized lying? Supposed leaders who accept a demonstrably flawed, ineffective and dangerous compromise rather than striving to improve or change it? One thing is quite certain. The future of the country, the presidency and the military will ultimately depend on a more insightful and wise caliber of command. Right now, the bottom line is that the official military policy of one nation, that pledges allegiance to a flag under God, is to lie in order to serve. And that's an order.

******

Disclosure: I have monitored the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy since its implementation. I interviewed hundreds of servicemembers both in and out of the military, gay and straight, in all branches of the service for our CD-ROM adaptation of Randy Shilts' masterpiece about gays and lesbians in the U.S. Military, Conduct Unbecoming, which won us The Critics' Choice Award in 1996. Additionally, ApolloMedia donates the technology and servers that run, operate and publish the web site for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN). I have no role at the SLDN and do not represent the organization in any way. I volunteer advice pertaining to privacy and security on the Internet. I read every report and document they produce and follow their investigations closely. Their claims represent a comprehensive, meticulously documented and unfortunately crystal clear understanding of the facts.

 
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