Dan Choi Broke the Rule

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(by Becky Kanis, West Point Graduate and Knights Out Chair)

On March 19, Lieutenant Dan Choi - West Point grad, Iraq combat vet, Arabic speaker - came out as gay on The Rachel Maddow Show. In doing so, he violated the military regulation (codified into law by Congress in 1993) that identifies "homosexual admission" as an offense punishable by separation.

Reaction in the military varied widely: from the predictable, vocal antigay minority to a much quieter, more private, general approval. However, one distinct reaction has been heard from a number of folks on both sides of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" debate: "He broke the rules."

At first blush, this seems reasonable. "We don't want our soldiers questioning their orders." Really? This makes perfect sense when the order is "Take that hill!" but there are many situations that are not immediate or life-threatening: "Sign this form so I can fill it out later." Or, more critically: " 'Soften up' these prisoners for questioning." In situations like this, we expect our military officers not just to ignore, but to challenge their orders.
In fact, a culture of blind obedience flies in the face of what a long history of military ethics has taught us.

At West Point we are taught that we have a clear responsibility to disobey an unlawful or unethical order. In the post-Vietnam era, captains and majors - still smarting from the shame the My Lai massacre brought to the officer corps - taught this lesson with a special urgency; today's instructors are similarly marked by the scandal of Abu Ghraib. To their credit, they push cadets to consider difficult situations they will face as officers, and debate how to make ethical choices. In cadet culture, there used to be a phrase that expressed this ethic simply: "Honor trumps regs," reflecting that violating regulations incurs varying punishments, but there is no wiggle room when it comes to the Honor Code. It is nonnegotiable, unassailable, unequivocal, and has one punishment: expulsion.

So what does this have to do with Lieutenant Dan Choi?

When Dan fell in love, his soldiers knew it - they talked with him about his "girlfriend, " giving advice about when to send flowers, how often to call, how soon to sleep over. But Dan now lived in constant fear of being found out and losing his career.

Most of the members of Knights Out had a similar experience. And most of us took a conventional path: we lied, we covered up, and at some point we either quit - or were outed and expelled from the Army. Not Dan.

Dan has pointed out to anyone who asks that the Army values of integrity and personal honor require him to be honest with his troops. That the Cadet Honor Code he learned at West Point taught him that lying is unacceptable. That his unit was made stronger, not weaker, when he was able to trust them with his personal truth. But even more than that, he felt his responsibility as a leader was to expose this policy for what it is - a violation of our soldiers' honor. And honor trumps regs.

Did Dan Choi break the rules? Most definitely. He flouted them on a national stage. But in doing so, he followed the higher Army value of integrity. He also, by speaking out so publicly, made others pay attention - in a way that is leading to the probable end of this dishonorable policy. At the end of the day, Dan's civil disobedience will pave the way for gays and lesbians currently serving to be honest about their lives and their families: to regain their honor. Because Dan made a career-ending decision, he may have allowed many thousands of gay soldiers to keep serving.

Dan has repeatedly said that he is no Rosa Parks. But it is instructive to note that Rosa Parks broke the rules - and when she refused to give up her seat, it brought attention to an unjust law that had been obeyed for too long. It seems absurd now, but at the time, many argued that blacks should have worked "within the system" for change rather than flouting the rules. Now we recognize that moment as critical to making change.

Dan Choi broke the rules - and by doing so upheld the highest standards of leadership, honor, and integrity we all expect from West Point.

Becky Kanis is a 1991 West Point graduate. She served as a Special Operations company commander before leaving the Army because of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. She is currently Chair of Knights Out, an organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender West Point grads and their allies.

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