Disrespecting the Troops, One Thousand Officers at a Time

05/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Steve Ralls Communications Director, Public Justice Foundation

Throughout their history, right-wing activists, when left with no facts to defend their case, have often turned to scare tactics to keep their crusades going. Whether it is "code red" terror alerts a few days before an election, or dire warnings about hurricanes seeking revenge for our pro-choice ways, the far right has long been fond of playing Jungian psychology to prey on ancient fears.

That is certainly the case with one of the right-wing's darlings of the moment, Elaine Donnelly, who heads up the misleadingly named Center for Military Readiness. Donnelly, who rose to fame by maligning brave, patriotic women who sign up for service in the armed forces, has recently set her sights on another set of troops, and set out to malign gays. From warning - before a Congressional committee, no less - of the "inappropriate passive/aggressive actions common in the homosexual community" to repeatedly calling an Army command in Texas in an attempt to get a gay soldier fired, Donnelly has crossed lines of decency and respect again and again.

In fact, Donnelly's attacks on women (she recently said - you just can't make this up - that "to treat [women] equally would be unfair") and gays has become the subject of constant ridicule. Everyone from Jon Stewart to The Washington Post have lambasted her 18th century sensibilities.

Yet, while it's easy to use her rhetoric as fodder for news media comedy, the furor she spews is also based on outrageous bigotry that is not just inherently anti-woman and anti-gay. It's anti-military, too. Which is why it's all the more perplexing why some of those who have worn our country's uniform have also signed on to her campaign of disregard and disrespect for our country's troops . . . and given her more fuel to fire up her campaign of irrational fears.

Earlier this week, Donnelly released a list of 1,000 military officers - from a slew of 1-stars to a select few who wear 4 - to the Associated Press. The officers, who were surely recruited by Donnelly following a 2008 "secret meeting" she convened in Washington, urged President Obama to step back from his campaign promise to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and keep the counter-productive ban on gay troops permanently in place.

But if a picture is worth a thousand words, a thousand officers are surely worth a look at the big picture. And the picture Donnelly and her minions paint is neither pretty nor based on what's best for our country, our military or our troops, whether straight or gay.

There is little doubt that Donnelly's newest salvo in her relentless public relations campaign is meant to scare President Obama and Congressional leaders into thinking that any move to lift the ban will result in a '93-esque debacle over gays in the military. By testing Obama's resolve with a group of military veterans who disagree with him, Donnelly is sending a clear message that she believes she can recreate the hysteria of the Clinton administration's early days and cause political pain for a new commander-in-chief without a military background.

The truth, however, is that she can't, because even though a list of 1,000 officers might seem impressive, the number pales in comparison to the growing army of Americans, both military and civilian, who can see past manufactured fear.

Of all the things we have learned since 1993, one of the most important is this: That heterosexual service members, by and large, do not buy into the gay panic press that Donnelly wants to push on the American people. And that when 'leaders' live up to their title, service members, both gay and straight, are inspired to see - and do - the right thing.

"Besides being discriminatory to gays, the policy demeans all the heterosexual men and women who honorably serve our country by assuming that they, too, are driven by small-minded prejudice and bias," Rear Admiral John D. Hutson, Dean and President of Franklin Pierce Law Center, told me. "If they are told by 'leaders' that gays are unworthy to serve, they will act accordingly. On the other hand, if they are told that they are mature and disciplined and that gays will enhance, not undermine, unit cohesion, they will act according to that. We must display confidence in our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and not presume they are too immature and ill-disciplined to accept gays in the military."

That is to say, it's all about leadership. And as a new generation of military personnel begin to move up the ranks and take the helm of the armed forces - alongside a new generation of political leadership reflected in the current commander-in-chief - old stereotypes and prejudices are quickly falling away . . . even if officers of an older generation continue to push their anti-gay ways.

Indeed, a quick look at the list supplied to the AP by Donnelly shows a few tell-tale things: There are very, very few women who endorse the gay ban, even though women continue to play more and more important roles throughout the ranks. And among the signatories on the list, one has had to apologize for suggesting African-American Marines were somehow less competent than whites, and the same one, in 1993, hand-delivered a virulent, anti-gay videotape, titled The Gay Agenda, to federal lawmakers considering then-President Clinton's proposal to lift the military's ban.

Surely, those are not the "leaders" President Obama will look to for sound policy guidance . . . or the ones he will allow to bully and scare him into doing the wrong thing.

In truth, Elaine Donnelly's list of 1,000 officers proves only one thing: That the more things change, the more the agents of intolerance will fight to keep them the same. But, as we did so proudly and patriotically in November, the American people can, once again, side-step the politics of fear and see the big picture again. Because, while 1,000 generals may paint one picture with inflammatory words, no amount of right-wing hysteria can, ultimately, cover up the truth. And not even 1,000 starred officers should be given the authority or stature to undermine, disrespect or dishonor the service of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or straight troops.