06/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gays in the Military: It's Time for Spine

When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates failed to recommend Peter Pace for a second two-year term as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff one year ago, he explained that he was afraid the confirmation hearings would turn into a referendum on the war in Iraq and he preferred to focus on the future. Well, maybe. Under the circumstances, Iraq could hardly be avoided.

But many suspected the Secretary's real fear was that the hearings would turn into a free-for-all on General Pace's tendency to express his opinions on political matters that had nothing to do with his job, which was protecting the national security of the United States, but a lot to do with what he thought would be pleasing to his boss, the President of the United States.

There were questions, for example, about the propriety of General Pace's writing a letter to the judge in the Scooter Libby trial, shortly before the sentencing, attesting to the defendant's good character and judgment, "both legally and morally." This had the unfortunate effect of raising more questions about General Pace's judgment than allaying doubts about Libby's.

The Libby letter compounded questions already raised by an incident just three months before Secretary Gates announced the Chairman's retirement. General Pace famously -- or infamously -- told the Chicago Tribune that gays do not belong in the military. "Homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral," he said, and the U.S. military "should not condone immoral acts." He opposed legislation to repeal the ban.

Responding to the ensuing uproar, General Pace released a statement the following day explaining that he was expressing his personal opinions. "I should have focused more on my support of the policy and less on my personal moral views," he said. Six months after that, a week before his retirement, the Senate Appropriations Committee gave him a chance to clarify those earlier remarks. He didn't provide much clarification but he did repeat them. He said his earlier remarks were misreported.

After listening to General Pace's attempted clarification, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) observed, "It's a matter of leadership, and we have to be careful what we say."

Well, misreporting does happen, but General Pace's views seemed pretty clear. In fairness, though, I have to acknowledge that he didn't condone heterosexual activity either, unless it took place between two spouses (married to each other, of course). But as we all know, to quote Gates's Pentagon predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld: "Stuff happens." (For a video clip, click here.)

Then I suppose we shouldn't be surprised by today's White House announcement. President Bush will award the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to General Pace on June 19.
Pace will follow in the footsteps of General Tommy Franks, George "slam dunk" Tenet, and Paul Bremer (not to overlook Mother Teresa and Rosa Parks).

Admiral Mike Mullen, Pace's successor as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has been talking a lot about leadership lately. Speaking at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, he told the graduates, "Few things are more vital to an organization than someone who has the moral courage to question the direction in which the organization is headed and the strength of character to support whatever decision is made. That's real loyalty."

And it's real rare, especially the "courage to question" part.

A little later in his speech he said, "We give our best advice beforehand. If it's followed, great. If it's not, we have two choices: obey the orders we have been given, carrying them out with the professionalism and loyalty they deserve, or vote with our feet. That's it."

Resigning on principle -- voting with the feet -- seems almost quaint these days. It has virtually disappeared from the American political scene and especially from the higher ranks of the military. At the moment, I can't think of any military leader who took a walk for a principle, but it's hot and maybe the weather is affecting my brain.

Two who did take a walk earlier this month, Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff General T. Michael "Buzz" Mosely, didn't do it voluntarily. Secretary Gates fired them. Speaking to graduating officers at the Army War College last week, Admiral Mullen commended them for accepting responsibility and accountability for "a chain of failures" -- spectacular failures -- in the Air Force's safeguarding of our nuclear arsenal. Admiral Mullen told the graduates, "That should serve a lesson to us all about leadership, but so too should it serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of complacency." Wynne and Mosely provided the complacency; Secretary Gates provided the leadership.

Let us hope that the Secretary will prove himself a leader again by advising the President and the Congress in an emphatic way that the ban on gay men and women serving in the military is not only obsolete, but wrong, and that it should be repealed. And we hope that Admiral Mullen has the moral courage he referred to at the Naval Academy to tell his two bosses the same thing, whether they want to hear it or not.

There have been courage sightings in the House of Representatives. A House Armed Services Subcommittee is on the brink of announcing the first Congressional hearing on the ban in 15 years, and 142 brave souls are cosponsors of a bill to lift the ban. That is not a majority, so the buck will have to be passed to the next President, the next Congress. They're going to need the moral courage those 142 Representatives are showing. They're also going to need a big push from the voters. Politicians listen to voters, and polls show the vast majority of Americans favor repeal. Even so, it's not going to be easy.

In an Associated Press story Wednesday, Anne Flaherty wrote: "Democrats say the nation should be ashamed of its ban on gays serving openly in the military. It discourages qualified people from joining the ranks at a time when the armed forces are stretched by two wars, they say, and is degrading to those willing to serve their country.

"So what have the Democrats done about it? Nothing, really. ... Indeed, the gays-in-the-military issue has slid from being a top campaign pledge of President Clinton's to a footnote on the Democratic agenda even as some of its staunchest opponents soften their rhetoric and acknowledge that the nation's attitudes are changing."

More Leadership, people! It's time for spine!