While Barack Obama has said he thinks the ban on open gays in the military should end, military leaders themselves have mixed views on the matter. This is important because it was the opposition of Colin Powell and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993 that derailed Bill Clinton's effort to lift the ban on gay troops.
Senator John McCain said during the presidential debates that he would give "full consideration" to legislation on "don't ask, don't tell" but that he would ultimately defer to military commanders who have told him the policy "is working." One of Obama's top military supporters, General Merrill McPeak, bore out McCain's comments last month, saying he believes the ban should remain.
But yesterday a document was released that was signed by over one hundred retired generals and admirals calling for repeal of the gay ban. The statement says that replacing the current policy with one of equal treatment "would not harm, and would indeed help, our armed forces," and it points to countries such as Britain and Israel which both ended their gay bans years ago. "Our service members are professionals who are able to work together effectively despite differences in race, gender, religion, and sexuality," says the statement. "Such collaboration reflects the strength and the best traditions of our democracy."
Clearly opinion is mixed on the issue, but the very existence of support for repeal by so many top military leaders undercuts McCain's suggestion that the military believes the policy is working. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said he will support whatever decision Congress makes, and two former chairmen of the JCS have said they think the ban should end.
In researching my forthcoming book on gays in the military, I learned from Clinton transition officials that there was disagreement, behind the scenes, about whether and how military officers should resist lifting the ban. Military brass even met with members of the religious right and settled on a public relations strategy to cast the policy in terms of military effectiveness when their real reason for supporting the ban was moral and religious opposition to homosexuality. And when it came time for the brass to speak publicly, they all fell in line behind Powell in opposing openly gay service.
The political history books fault Clinton for not consulting enough with the military. In truth, he met with the Joint Chiefs just two weeks after his election, and again the week after he took office. The reality is the he did consult; but some powerful military men didn't like what they were hearing, and they squashed the effort to end the ban.
This time, we must hope that all opinions and positions will be heard. At a time when our military is stretched thin, the nation owes itself no less.