Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee to call for an end to the 16-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” law.
While the Admiral’s words were eloquent, heartfelt and powerful, I doubt that the appearance and the words of our highest ranking active-duty officer— nominated to his present position by George W. Bush—changed many minds, especially among Conservative lawmakers.
However, minds have been gradually changing on the issue of gays and lesbians serving openly in the U.S. military. Here are a few examples.
General Colin Powell, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993, supported and helped shape “don’t ask, don’t tell” laws and policies.
In December, 2008, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria asked Republican General Powell about his thoughts on the 1993 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.” Powell said:
We definitely should reevaluate it. It’s been 15 years since we put in “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which was a policy that became a law. I didn’t want it to become a law, but it became a law. Congress felt that strongly about it.
But it’s been 15 years, and attitudes have changed. And so, I think it is time for the Congress, since it is their law, to have a full review of it. And I’m quite sure that’s what President-elect Obama will want to do.
… But times have changed. This is not 1993. It is 2008. And we should review the law.
Today, General Powell came out unequivocally in support of repealing the law he once helped usher in.
In a statement issued by his office he said:
In the almost 17 years since the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ legislation was passed, attitudes and circumstances have changed…I fully support the new approach presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week by Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen.
In January 2007, Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the policy was implemented, said in a New York Times article:
Last year I held a number of meetings with gay soldiers and marines, including some with combat experience in Iraq, and an openly gay senior sailor who was serving effectively as a member of a nuclear submarine crew. These conversations showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers.
This perception is supported by a new Zogby poll of more than 500 service members returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, three quarters of whom said they were comfortable interacting with gay people. And 24 foreign nations, including Israel, Britain and other allies in the fight against terrorism, let gays serve openly, with none reporting morale or recruitment problems.
I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces.
When that day comes, gay men and lesbians will no longer have to conceal who they are, and the military will no longer need to sacrifice those whose service it cannot afford to lose.
More recently, on January 26, 2010, Gen. Shalikashvili said in a statement:
As a nation built on the principle of equality, we should recognize and welcome change that will build a stronger, more cohesive military. It is time to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” and allow our military leaders to create policy that holds our service members to a single standard of conduct and discipline.
Generals Powell and Shalikashvili are not alone in changing their minds.
In November, 2007, a group of 28 retired generals and admirals released a statement calling for the repeal of DADT ban, stating, “Our service members are professionals who are able to work together effectively despite differences in race, gender, religion, and sexuality…such collaboration reflects the strength and the best traditions of our democracy,” and “Those of us signing this letter have dedicated our lives to defending the rights of our citizens to believe whatever they wish.”
No one knows how many of those high-ranking officers may have changed their minds on this issue, but it is likely that at least a few have had a change of mind, a change of heart, in recent years.
Then, in November 2008, more than 100 retired generals and admirals, in a letter to Congress, called for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” signaling growing support for repeal of the law. The group included retired Adm. Charles Larson, a four-star admiral and two-time superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy and Clifford Alexander, Army secretary under former President Jimmy Carter.
But it is not just the generals and admirals who are changing their minds.
Poll after poll, survey after survey, attest to the fact that Americans—civilians as well as military, Democrats as well Republicans—have increasingly more tolerant views on gays, gay rights and, more specifically, on gays serving openly in the military. This perception is supported by an Annenberg 2004 survey, a 2006 Zogby poll, a July 2008 Washington Post-ABC News poll, a 2008 Pew poll and Research Center reports, a May 2009 USA Today-Gallup poll.
I would be remiss, however, not to mention a change of mind by a powerful and respected politician, former military and a war hero.
Back in October 2006, Republican Senator John McCain, in a speech to Iowa State University students, said:
The day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, “‘Senator, we ought to change the policy,” then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it.
But, on Tuesday, when the Secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff came before him, McCain had apparently changed his mind. He chastised both men and ignored—some say ridiculed—what I felt were the Admiral’s “eloquent, heartfelt and powerful words.” Words such as:
It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do…We have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, personally, it comes down to integrity — theirs as individuals and ours as institutions.
Admiral Mullen told the panel that included Senator McCain:
“No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens or me personally, it comes down to integrity, theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.”
No way of changing the mind, or the integrity, of this Admiral.