After the Chiefs of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines sent letters to Congress today in a last-ditch effort to block the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili responded in force by sending his own letter to the Hill. According to General Shalikashvili, "it is not only preferable, but essential that [the law] be repealed in order for the Service Chiefs to retain the very authority they require to do their jobs effectively."
The Chiefs are up in arms because, supposedly, the compromise legislation to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" will be disrespectful to service members. According to Marine Chief General James Conway, Congress must not take action now because "the value of surveying the thoughts of Marines and their families is that it signals to my Marines that their opinions matter."
Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, says in today's letter that "our Sailors and their families need to understand clearly that their voices will be heard." Three months ago, however, the Admiral told Palm Center scholars that "We've never assessed the force because it's not our practice to go within our military and poll our force to determine if they like the laws of the land or not...That gets you into a very difficult regime."
Of course, the views of the service members matter. And that is precisely why the Pentagon is asking troops about how "don't ask, don't tell" should be repealed. But as General Shalikashvili observes, the true way to respect the troops is to pass the compromise legislation. If the legislation does not pass, the Pentagon will not have the authority to implement the recommendations of the current study process, the process that is designed to reach out to service members to canvass their opinions, because military policy would remain locked-in by the "don't ask, don't tell" law.
What's disingenuous about the Chiefs' eleventh-hour obstructionism is that they know full well that if compromise legislation is not passed now, the political climate in Congress likely will become much more challenging for repeal after the midterm elections. If they can delay just a little bit longer, in other words, "don't ask, don't tell" will remain law for years, possibly many years. That's what the Chiefs want. That's what they really mean by respecting the troops.