The troops have spoken. 70 percent of service personnel surveyed in DoD's recently released study either approve of openly gay men and women serving in the military, or they couldn't care less. But what of the 30 percent (more if one counts only the Marines and only those assigned to combat posts) who favor keeping "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"? That's a whole bunch of soldiers, sailors, and Marines who fear... whatever. What should the military do about it?
In a word, nothing.
Well, not exactly nothing. If Congress repeals DADT (and, in the process makes clear the military's obligation to accord all its members basic human rights), the Pentagon will have a duty to ensure that directives are issued, compliance demanded, consequences outlined, and training provided. Just as it does with every policy shift. Just as it did with racial integration.
We all know the tragic story of returning black World War II veterans. Their acceptance within the ranks in time of war counted for exactly nothing as they later sought to patronize hotels and restaurants, ride at the front of the bus, secure housing, employment, education, even voting rights. Ultimately, through agitation, education, legislation, and landmark legal verdicts, we got it right as a nation. Legally speaking. Of course, the model, imperfect as it was, had already been there, in the form of a nominally egalitarian society within the military. Talk about your paradoxes. Talk about implementing controversial policies during "time of war."
For years I marveled at the military's leadership in advancing the cause of civil rights within the ranks. By according its black members the right -- and obligations -- that bind all members of the service, the United States military served as a prototype of how integration could work. Colin Powell is only one of many blacks who made it to the top, or close to it, on the strength of merit, not color. It wasn't just Brown v. Board of Education, the Voting Rights Act, or a potent political movement that achieved civil rights for people of color. It was the example of the military.
The military now has an opportunity to prove to the rest of the world that as massive, complex, and bureaucratic as it is, and as conservative as its traditions, good, bad, and benign, may be, the institution can be hospitable and welcoming to openly gay men and women. To the enormous benefit of the nation, and all its citizens.
But what if that gay soldier in the shower makes unwanted sexual advances? Or the lesbian lieutenant comes on sexually to her unwilling sergeant? The answer is plain: Make an example of them. If an investigation establishes wrongdoing, it's time for discipline (preferably administered more quickly and comprehensively than has historically been the case with straight male soldiers or officers sexually harassing or assaulting female peers or subordinates). Straight or gay, "no" means no.
Happily, the vast majority of service personnel will do what they're told. Which will not be a hard sell given that most have already gone on record that they will not mourn the inevitable death of DADT.
Of course, if what bugs you as a pro-DADT warrior is the idea (or the reality) of being forced to get naked in a shower or jammed into a tight submarine or fox hole with someone who's attracted to members of the same sex, the answer for you is simple: Deal with it. That brother or sister is a human being, you are a human being: Work it out. Straight cops across the country have been lathering up with openly gay colleagues for a long time now. Yet, incidents of locker room misconduct are so uncommon as not to register at all in internal affairs data.
Having spent three-and-a-half decades in a paramilitary institution, I can attest to the rarity of a policy, any policy, that is embraced by all. But I can also confirm that most police personnel adhere to even those policies they find onerous. Why? In part, because they're made to understand the penalty for not following orders. There's every reason to believe military personnel will likewise comply.
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who served with many gays throughout his long and distinguished service, pointed out, military personnel who can't or won't accept the new policy will have to find another line of work. (Don't look for a mass exodus.) The same is true for those considering military service in the future.
Ideally, military personnel across all branches of the service will welcome the policy. Soldiers, regardless of sexual orientation, working together, facing danger together, sacrificing together: The power of such a message is inescapable. The military's open acceptance of openly gay and lesbian personnel will be a beacon of hope to young gay kids who need to believe that life gets better.
Perhaps it will also send a message to voters and lawmakers throughout the country that denial of marriage for members of the LGBT community is equally bigoted, unconstitutionally discriminatory, and indefensible.
The Defense Department, seen by some as the most unlikely of institutions, is poised, with the help of Congress -- and if not our lawmakers, then the courts -- to usher in a new era of the few, the proud, the straight, and the openly gay.