A New Pentagon Strategy on Gays

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Crossposted on Huffington Post.

You have to give credit where credit is due. After Senator Carl Levin announced yesterday that he would hold hearings on "don't ask, don't tell," anti-gay forces in the Pentagon responded immediately. Levin was sending a strong signal that both the White House and Congress are ready to move forward with plans to repeal the gay ban, so the Pentagon needed to move quickly.

Within hours of Senator Levin's announcement, the military stuck back by leaking an internal memo to the Associated Press. In the memo, top advisers to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff explain that now is not the time to tinker with social policy. Yes we love our gay brothers and sisters, the argument goes. But we're fighting two wars. So don't divert our military leaders' attention by forcing them to deal with gay troops while bullets are flying.

The Pentagon response is clearly part of a coordinated strategy, since this is the second time in recent months that the military trotted out the "we can't deal with gays during wartime" argument in response to forward momentum. After Army Secretary John McHugh said that the military is ready to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, the head of the Marine Corps leaked a story indicating that, guess what, we're fighting two wars and we have other more important issues to deal with than gays.

The "don't-bother-us-while-we're-at-war" argument sounds good on its face. But when you look more closely at the argument, you can see the cynicism that informs it.

Consider that military commanders on the ground are ignoring "don't ask, don't tell" and allowing gay troops to serve. Almost every year since 2001, gay discharges have dropped. This is consistent with a long term pattern that includes World War II and wars in Korea and Vietnam in which gay discharges always drop during wartime. Wartime, in other words, is exactly when the Pentagon allows gays and lesbians to serve openly. With respect to the the current wars, my research team and I uncovered a military regulation which orders commanders to deploy gay troops to the Middle East during the current wars. So the "don't-bother-us-now" argument is, at best, disingenuous.

Indeed, before 2001, when the nation was at peace, and when future war seemed very unlikely, conservatives were arguing that peace was not the time to lift the gay ban. They said that wartime was the best moment to lift the ban because once the bullets start flying, the troops are focused on defeating our enemies and don't care as much about social issues. So we should wait for a war to start to lift the ban.

One fascinating aspect of the new Pentagon strategy is that it cedes the argument that integration will not undermine unit cohesion. Anti-gay obstructionists are not arguing that the ban should not be lifted. They're simply saying, "don't do this now."

Sadly, however, civilian leaders often hesitate to question military pronouncements, as if military matters are so rarified, obscure, and complicated that only a uniformed officer has the expertise to evaluate them. (Anyone who buys into this notion should research what the generals predicted would happen if African Americans and women were allowed to serve.)

The question to ask is whether Democrats in the White House and Congress will melt in the face of this new, bogus Pentagon argument. Or if they will move forward with their long-stated plans of treating gay troops like everyone else.

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