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Aubrey Sarvis

Aubrey Sarvis

Posted: July 11, 2008 01:13 PM

Exclusive: Congress Plans Historic Hearing on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"


Rather quietly and without a great deal of fuss, the House Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee is preparing at any moment now to make a historic announcement: the subcommittee will take a serious look at the manpower needs of our armed forces at a hearing scheduled for 2 p.m. July 23rd.

It is historic because any serious discussion of the crisis the country faces in recruiting and retaining qualified men and women in the military -- and it is a real crisis -- will require a fresh and serious look at the odious "compromise" known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." President Clinton signed that bill into law in 1993 after an overwrought Congress and Pentagon, playing to its own and others' homophobia, shot down candidate Clinton's proposal to allow lesbian, gay, and bisexual men and women to serve openly in the military.

The subject gave some in Congress and the Pentagon what can best be described as "the vapors." That's right, the vapors, a semi-swooning state that respectable Victorian women fell into when confronted with an allusion to -- dare we say it? -- sex. According to Wikipedia, citing a book published by Johns Hopkins University Press, the typical treatment for this condition, then known to the medical profession as hysteria, involved massage, vibrators, and water sprays. Medical science has progressed considerably since then. We'll soon find out if Congress and the Pentagon has.

Fifteen years ago, from March through July, the Senate Armed Services Committee under the chairmanship of Senator Sam Nunn held hearings on the question of the compatibility of homosexuality with military service, a question some thought Patroclus and Achilles had settled at the time of the Trojan War, which was a very long time ago. The efforts of then Secretary of Defense Les Aspin to defend President Clinton's stated policy were less than strenuous. "As a general rule, homosexuality is incompatible [with military service]," he testified. "But there are exceptions to the rule [...] and individual homosexuals have served with distinction in the armed forces of the United States."

You don't say! Was that supposed to come as real news to anyone who had ever served in the armed forces of the United States?

Military leaders, beginning with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell, ignoring what they must have seen with their own eyes, all solemnly agreed, that yes, homosexuality was incompatible with military service. "Unit cohesion" was the mantra. But, well, maybe it was okay if nobody ever mentioned it, so the "compromise" known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" became the law of the land, codifying job discrimination based on sexual orientation.

You can get an idea of the general tone of the 1993 hearings in a comment of Senator Dan Coats. "I do not know," he said, "how a commander can possibly conclude that one of his soldiers in his unit who has just marched in drag in a gay parade, and knowledge of that is within the unit, that that does not undermine unit cohesiveness. That is contrary to the testimony of virtually every witness that came before this committee in six exhaustive hearings."

If you're going to take an example to demonstrate your point, you might as well take an extreme one. It's worth noting that although Senator Coats was the ranking Republican member of the subcommittee, its Democratic chairman Sam Nunn was no better.

But that was 15 years ago. A couple of weeks ago members of the Canadian military marched in the Gay Pride parade in Toronto with the knowledge and permission of their command. There have been no reports that their units have collapsed into fractious infighting. And I might also note that Canada has approximately 2,500 troops fighting in Afghanistan, some of whom one can safely presume are gay.

Everybody knows about the manpower crisis in Iraq where men and women are being sent back for their third and fourth tours, but we tend to forget that under the aegis of NATO we're fighting another, much under-resourced war in the region. In June, before the very recent violence in Kabul and elsewhere, U.S. News reported that "violence is up 50 percent in eastern Afghanistan compared with 2007, and the drug trade is exploding. Last year, too, there were 140 suicide bombings here, a record number. ISAF (NATO's International Security Assistance Force) fields one-third the number of foreign troops in Iraq, yet Afghanistan is 50 percent larger and has some four million more people. So despite the increase in troop numbers [...] the country still needs more. (Italics mine.) General Dan McNeill, who stepped down as NATO commander in Afghanistan last month, in quoted in U.S. News as saying, ISAF is "an under-resourced force. That's been a constant theme since I've been here."

How many more tours can our military take? Where are fresh troops going to come from? Do you think maybe these exhausted men and women might actually thank God that there are gay men and women willing to replace them so they can go home? Do you think they actually give a damn about their sexual orientation? On the contrary, I think they would be very grateful, and so would their families.

I'm optimistic. I think this hearing will be serious and substantive. This time I don't expect a lot of homophobic posturing. This House hearing will provide an opportunity for a responsible Congress to take a fresh look at the law, to see how it is not working in the real world, to realize if they don't already that DADT promotes neither military readiness nor unit cohesion. Most of all, this hearing will advance the process of repeal.

Then our Congressmen can all head off to Minneapolis or Denver with a clear conscience to nominate our next President.