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The Military Wants Diversity -- Will Congress Stand in its Way?

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As a Pentagon working group studies how to end discrimination against gay troops, one of its focuses is the military's broader experience with diversity: how has it met the challenge of transcending old barriers and replacing them with a commitment to putting the best and brightest -- not just the male-est and whitest -- in key positions of leadership? The question is essential to the current debate over service by open gays, because history shows that these barriers -- commonly known as prejudice -- have thwarted, more than helped, our nation's ability to be the safest, most efficient, and noblest that it can be.

Fortunately, our military has largely come to understand this. Yesterday a remarkable book arrived on my doorstep published by Air University Press, part of the military's Air Force Research Institute. Attitudes Aren't Free: Thinking Deeply about Diversity in the U.S. Armed Forces compiles the latest thinking by top military officers and military and independent scholars about the role of a diverse force in the 21st-century military (full disclosure: I am co-author of one of the book's essays).

Why is this book important? Its 550 pages range across a century of warfare, and address diversity of religion, race, gender, sexuality, and more. In a powerful endorsement of the operational importance of having a military that looks like America, current and former senior officers call diversity a "national security imperative" that is "essential to the military's ability to fulfill its principal mission." Despite the challenges of racial integration, which continue to this day, the military has come down firmly as its ongoing champion. "Diversity is key to unit cohesiveness," say the authors, "which in turn is critical to mission effectiveness." A "lack of diverse leadership has the potential to produce severe negative consequences" including the "loss of strategic advantage for our military commanders."

What gets in the way of achieving this badly needed military diversity? As the book shows, culture and politics are the main barriers -- no small hurdles to jump. But there are lessons of transcendence. In a fascinating account of Sen. Jim Webb's evolution in his thinking about women in combat, Michael Allsep, a military historian at Air University, recounts how as a Marine veteran and future Secretary of the Navy, Webb staunchly opposed the admission of women to the service academies not because they were truly unfit, but because of his personal attachment to the ideals of "martial masculinity" and his resentment against meddling by politicians. Ironically, Webb then built a political career largely on a controversial article he wrote called "Women Can't Fight" which, as the world changed around him, came back to haunt him.

By the time Webb ran for the senate as a Democrat in 2006, he had renounced both the Republican Party and the exclusionary "martial masculinity" that had shaped him. The GOP, his former home, was now peopled by "unseemly true believers," he thought, who insisted on "distorting the integrity" of the military by "rewarding sycophancy and punishing honesty." And he made a very public apology for his role in subjecting military women to "undue hardship" as a prominent military official by making disparaging remarks that seemed to greenlight harassment against them.

The book also addresses sexual orientation diversity, with one active-duty officer writing that individuals should be judged "on their own merit. The more we hold people accountable for their valued attributes, the less we pay attention to skin color, religion, or sexual preference." The Director of National Security and Joint Warfare at the U.S. Marine Wars College calls the suggestion that openly gay service could impair military readiness a "red herring" and fears about harm to recruitment and retention "a leap of heroic proportions."

While opinion is still divided, we have clearly reached a tipping point where a substantial segment of military leadership has come to understand that equal treatment of gays and lesbians in uniform is both a moral and operational imperative. The opinion was crystallized in recent remarks by Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that forcing gay troops to lie about their identity compromises the military's integrity, and that ending such discrimination is "the right thing to do."

So what is now holding the military back from doing the right thing? Well, culture and politics. As revealed in the book, the rationale for "don't ask, don't tell" -- that openly gay service would undermine cohesion and readiness--is entirely bankrupt and most of its early champions have now acknowledged as much. By the end of the twentieth century, a virtual takeover of the military by Republican stalwarts (Republican officers outnumbered Democrats 8 to 1 and the book says the GOP "had come to treat the military as its political constituency") and conservative Evangelicals meant the armed forces were serving as a kind of rear guard bastion for those who feel alienated by modern secular life.

Sen. Jim Webb was once in this camp. But he modernized, at least when it came to his attitudes about women. Will he rise to the occasion once again? Within the next month, the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, on which Webb sits, has the option of inserting repeal language into the must-pass Defense Authorization bill. Yet several senators on the Committee, are saying they want to await a year-long Pentagon Working Group study on repeal before they decide to support repeal legislation.

This is amusing, because even the people conducting the study say they are not studying whether the ban should be lifted, but simply how to prepare for it... if Congress should decide to end it. Meanwhile the military shows what it really thinks about the gay ban by ignoring "don't ask, don't tell" in the field and by altering the regulations to drastically reduce the number of homosexual discharges that actually occur.

So: The Pentagon says it must take orders from Congress; the Congress says it will wait for the go-ahead from the Pentagon. The White House says as little as possible.

You see, President Obama knows that lifting the ban is both right and doable, morally and politically. But the White House has chosen to spend its first two years pushing other priorities, out of fear that gay rights is a political albatross. That's no longer true, as polls show consistently not only that most Americans, including most conservatives and Republicans, support repeal, but that politicians who support repeal will not suffer harm even by those constituents who oppose repeal. Yet Democrats, in both the White House and Congress, are scarred by the Rovian tactics of the past, which successfully used gay rights as a wedge issue against them.

So the White House parked repeal in a Working Group for an entire year, in an effort to build military support, while delaying repeal until after this November's midterm elections. Where Dems are expected to lose seats, and possibly the margin to achieve repeal. Does this sound like a plan?

Here's a better one: A report published in Attitudes Aren't Free authored by a bipartisan panel of retired flag officers (that was convened by the Palm Center) recommends that Congress unlock the military's hands and repeal "don't ask, don't tell" so the military can achieve equal treatment of gay troops. There is no reason that legislation should micromanage how the Pentagon makes this change, so long as it makes the change. That means there is no reason that passes the giggle test for Congress to hide behind the Pentagon's study. Its chairmen have already said their report will not answer the question of whether to end the ban, but how to do it smoothly. So why await the study before taking a vote? Everyone but the luddites will win if Congress votes now to repeal the ban, while giving the Pentagon the timetable it needs to implement the change according to the results of the study.

Democrats in Congress, particularly those on the Senate Armed Services Committee, have a historic opportunity to do the right thing. As the journalist Kerry Eleveld has noted, our country is a handful of votes away from "making the greatest civil rights advancement on behalf of LGBT Americans in the history of this country." Will we modernize?