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Time to Pass HR 1283 and Let Gays Serve in the Military

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Representative Ellen Tauscher of California has introduced legislation HR 1283: Military Readiness Enhancement Act of 2009 to replace Section 654 of U.S. code 10, which contains the current policy that bans gays from serving in the United States Armed Forces, also known as "don't ask, don't tell." The new legislation states, "The Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of Homeland Security with respect to the Coast Guard when it is not operating as a service in the Navy, may not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation against any member of the Armed Forces or against any person seeking to become a member of the Armed Forces."

In a predictable response, about 1,000 retired generals and admirals -- led by none other than retired Adm. Jerome Johnson, a key figure in the 1993 effort that led to the original discrimination against gays in the military -- wrote a letter to President Obama, opposing the new legislation. Mr. Johnson went further in his effort and co-wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on April 15 along with James Lindsay and E.G. Shuler Jr. and Joseph Went, titled "Gays and The Military: A Bad Fit" and appeared on NPR's Talk of The Nation on Monday to further argue his points. Throughout the op-ed, as well as during his appearance, he made a series of flawed arguments.

Adm. Johnson's points, as well as those of others who support "don't ask, don't tell," can be roughly put under the umbrellas of three main arguments.

The first argument is that as older legislation asserted, the military is a "specialized society" with a culture that is traditional, and so changing the rules on gays would "impose a burden" on the military, hurt recruitment and retention and discourage parents from encouraging their children to join the Armed Forces. On Monday, Adm. Johnson referred to surveys done by Military Times over four years, claiming that 58% of the military oppose allowing gays to serve openly and 14% would end their careers in the military in the event that the rules are changed.

But this argument ignores the history of addressing discrimination in the military. When President Truman ordered the military to desegregate in 1948, the vast majority of the military -- not to mention the population in most of the countries from the South where a big portion of the members of the military come from -- had sharply racist tendencies against the blacks. When he sent his 10-point program to Congress on February 2, 1948, instructing "the Secretary of Defense to take steps to have the remaining instances of discrimination in the armed services eliminated as rapidly as possible," he endured a storm of criticism from Southern Democrats in the run-up to the national nominating convention. But even when support for discrimination spread so far beyond the military and political stakes were so high, his response was not to postpone doing what was right. Instead, he responded by saying "My forebears were Confederates....But my very stomach turned over when I had learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten." President Truman ordered the military's desegregation because he understood that the traditional culture of the military and appeasement to any biases and racism that may have been associated with it was not a condition that he had to accept as the price of having a strong army.

In 2009, President Obama faces a similar question on gays with only a few important differences that make it even more important for him to eliminate discrimination. First, the national tolerance of gays is already much higher than tolerance of blacks in the late 1940s, making it all the more pressing for the military's culture to change and become more aligned with national sentiments and standards on equality. Secondly, the economy is in a much worse condition than it was shortly after the war. This lowers the likelihood that the members of the military will be abandoning their careers because of any change of policy on gays. And for those who are so steadfast in their beliefs to abandon their careers, the number is likely to be so small to be comparable with the number of careers of gays in the military that are constantly ruined after they are outed. Even if admission of gays to the military will cause a small net decrease in recruitment, that change will be short-term as the military has previously showed that even when the majority of its members strongly support discrimination (1948), they would rather change and accept the new rules than quitting the army.

The two other sets of arguments that Adm. Johnson and others make against allowing gays to serve is that service is not a constitutional right, but a privilege that is given to those who meet strict military standards and show the capacity to endure long periods of intensive trainings. But what Adm. Johnson misunderstands is that the question here is not whether service is a right, but rather whether every citizen in this country is given an equal opportunity to compete for the privilege to serve or some have systematically and discriminately banned from competition solely based on their inherent characteristics, rather than physical abilities. Proponents of gays' right to serve do not argue for loosened standards or less intensive trainings for gays. They simply argue that as citizens, they should be given an equal opportunity to compete on a leveled playing field. Providing them with such opportunity will only lead to more competition, and ultimately a more competitive and capable army.

Finally, Adm. Johnson makes the point that even if gays are allowed to serve, they will continue to face discrimination by being shut out of leadership positions within the military, leading them to resent their conditions in the army and becoming potentially vulnerable to manipulation by the enemy and even becoming security risk for the army. But of course, even if the army proves incapable of prosecuting and preventing discrimination after the laws are changed, the admiral's argument cuts both ways. Because gays who are regularly outed and kicked out of the army due to their sexual orientation have both more reasons to resent the U.S. army and in a potentially more economic need that can be fulfilled by cooperation and exchange of intelligence with the enemy.

It is hard to believe that this country continues to debate simple issues of discrimination in 2009. What the opponents of gays' serving in the military do not admit are all the advantages that will come from a more inclusive policy. Allowing gays will lead to thousands of more gays to consider a career in the military. In addition, it will make the U.S. army more representative of the beliefs of Americans on foreign soils. The reason for this lack of admission is that individuals like Adm. Johnson and other socially conservative members of the military have for years been warning against the elimination of discrimination against gays in the army not by expressing their views as personal and subjective, but as what they claim are objective assessments of the situations. But no matter what the motivations, their arguments remain unconvincing and unsupported by evidence. It is time President Obama supports the reversal of "don't ask, don't tell" and pushes the military to change as the rest of the country has changed.

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