The Case for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT): A View From the Front Lines
The U.S. Senate today held hearings on the question of repealing the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy enacted and signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. These hearings follow the November 30 release by the Pentagon of its long-awaited report on the subject. Today, Senators heard testimony from, among others, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, General Cater F. Ham, and Pentagon chief counsel Jeh Johnson.
Notoriously absent from the discussion, however, was the point of view of those who would deal most closely and immediately with the ramifications and challenges of elimination of the DADT policy: the officers and noncommissioned officers serving at the company level – that is, closest to the troops. This article is authored from the perspective of a company grade commissioned officer currently serving in an infantry unit at the tail end of a year-long deployment in a combat theater of operations.
Over a year ago my unit transitioned from a traditional infantry structure and mission (in which it maintained an all-male composition) to a mixed-gender structure to perform a branch-neutral mission (convoy escort operations in Iraq). The lessons of this deployment in managing the many challenges of a mixed-gender composition in a deployed environment are instructive and should inform on the question of DADT. Ultimately, it is my recommendation that the DADT law not be repealed or, if it is, that open homosexuals be subject to the same prohibition on service in combat arms that restricts such service by females. The reasoning behind this recommendation follows.
I. Always Place the Mission First. When a young recruit is shipped to Basic Combat Training, one of the first things that he or she learns is to recite the Soldier’s Creed by heart and on demand. This creed includes, in its most basic form, a succinct statement of the Soldier’s most basic purpose and the ultimate mission of our country’s armed forces: “I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.”
All military policy, procedure, and doctrine should be developed and implemented with this most basic purpose in mind. If there is any institution that should stand and be beyond the reach of political correctness or ideology, it is the armed forces. The armed forces are not and should not be a testing or proving ground for sociopolitical experiments or movements. Policy decisions should be made and implemented based exclusively on their effect on combat strength and readiness. This principle applies equally to all sides, and this article is authored with this rule in mind.
Unfortunately, the issue of DADT has become the target of political demagoguery. The gay community wrongly views the policy itself as homophobic or discriminatory. The contrary, of course, is true. The DADT policy was a compromise enacted to remove outright discrimination and to allow gay Americans to serve their country. It is necessary because of the nature of the military as an organization.
Integrating gays into the military presents many of the same challenges and difficulties as the integration of women. As such, an overview of issues relating to mixed gender service would be a helpful introduction to the more difficult issues of open homosexuality.
II. Mixed-Gender Issues.
To understand the prohibition on mixed-gender combat units and its relationship to DADT, it is important to understand how the military operates at the micro- level. The most basic maneuver unit in the Army infantry is the squad. A squad is a group of approximately nine Soldiers, broken into two teams of four and led by a squad leader, usually a staff sergeant. These nine Soldiers are expected to act as a brotherhood that eats, sleeps, lives, entertains, works and trains as a single cohesive unit and consciousness. In a healthy squad, the members know each other better than they know their own families, and they operate seamlessly as a warrior brotherhood. The squad is the cornerstone of the Army’s combat structure and a healthy, effective squad is a combat multiplier.
Women are prohibited from serving in the combat arms because under most circumstances they do not integrate well into the squad structure. As the old axiom goes, men are from Mars, women are from Venus. The 1992 book authored by John Gray is based on the true notion that men and women are as different as beings from other planets. Men and women communicate differently, have different emotional needs, solve problems differently, have different biological functions and medical needs and, most basically, are sexually attracted to each other. Under the most ideal of conditions and circumstances, introduction of females into a combat squad presents an obstacle to the healthy functioning of the team. Under less than ideal conditions, the introduction of a female Soldier into a squad will undermine and cripple its effectiveness.
The relationship between gender and homosexuality is direct and immediate. It boils down to sexuality. Most if not all of the issues introduced by mixed gender units would also be present with open homosexuality.
Here are some of the ways that integration of the sexes leads to a breakdown in discipline, order and morale in a military unit:
Logistical Impracticality. In a deployed environment (as well as mobilizations or other times leading up to a deployment), teams and squads often share the same immediate living space. This makes it easy for the leaders to supervise their Soldiers, disseminate information, account for equipment, and otherwise effectively manage the unit’s affairs. Females, for obvious reasons, are housed separately and are often forbidden from ever entering the male Soldiers’ living space (and vice versa). This requires separate living quarters, separate latrines (bathrooms), and separate showering tents. This is not always practical or even feasible in a forward deployed environment.
Loss of Unit Cohesiveness. In environments where communication is often the “Hey You!” word of mouth (there are many places the Army deploys where cell phone service does not exist), the phenomenon of separate living space instantly introduces unnecessary complications. Not only are the leaders unable to closely supervise their Soldiers, but they are also unable to maintain continuous accountability of their unit’s weapons and other equipment. Direct leadership becomes indirect as communication with the opposite sex is made by runner or telephone and meetings must occur at inconvenient locations.
Fraternization and Sexual Tension. It is impossible to prevent men and women from doing what men and women do with each other. Men and women who are sexually attracted to each other will engage in sexual behavior with one another. When this occurs within a squad, or even between Soldiers in the same platoon or company, the result is jealousy, inappropriate superior/subordinate relationships, preferential treatment, adultery, unplanned pregnancies, and general competition among the men for the attention and affection of the females. It is not uncommon to see schoolyard drama play out among male Soldiers, who should be singlemindedly focused on their mission, over the affection of a female. If this occurs within a squad, the result is disaster. Mixed gender units are also prone to sexual harassment complaints and incidents, whether justified or not. The ultimate consequence over time is a general degradation of discipline, morale, battle focus mindset, and combat strength and effectiveness.
There is no question that there are currently gays that serve in the military. Most gays likely perform the duties and tasks of an individual Soldier well and without any problem.
The military is very different from any civilian workplace or organization, however. Even when compared to professions in the civilian world that could be considered ‘similar’ like firefighting or police work, military service involves unique circumstances and challenges. In the civilian world, everyone goes home at the end of their shift. When military units are deployed, however, especially at or near the beginning of a conflict, Soldiers are often required to live in extremely uncomfortable situations, very close to each other, for extended periods of time. This makes segregation of the sexes – or by sexual preference – impractical or impossible.
All of the problems associated with mixed gender units discussed above also apply to the issue of open homosexuality. Allowing gays to serve openly injects sexual tension and labeling into the living quarters. This is unacceptable. It is not difficult to understand why a person would be uncomfortable showering in an open bay next to a person who may be sexually interested. The sexes are segregated for exactly this reason. Requiring women to sleep, shower, and live in extremely close proximity to men would be unconscionable. It should be no different for heterosexual and homosexual men and women. Unlike the problem of mixed gender, however, the issue cannot be solved by simply housing gays separately since doing so would be placing them with others of their stated sexual preference (who also share the same-sex preference). The only solution would be to house every open gay Soldier individually – a luxury that even field grade officers don’t always enjoy in deployed environments, and which would be logistically impossible.
Unless you have ever served at the company level or below in a combat arms unit, you cannot possibly understand all the reasons that integration of open gays would be a disaster. Trust me on this point. The closest analogy to how Soldiers interact amongst each other in combat units at the squad level is that of a professional sports team in the locker room. The difference is that on a sports team you are playing for points, while in the military the game is life or death. Military policy decisions of this nature should be made based upon the cold analysis of their effect on combat strength and effectiveness, not on the basis of political correctness.
While I have the utmost respect for Secretary Gates and General Ham, they are far removed from the actual real life effects of permitting open homosexuality in the military. Under political pressure in Washington, D.C., repealing DADT may seem like a good idea. However, the actual effect on order, discipline, morale, and combat readiness on the front lines would be disastrous.
The armed forces should not be a proving ground for sociopolitical movements. Allowing open homosexuality in the current climate is nothing short of an open invitation for activists to do just that.
The DADT policy was originally a compromise that permitted homosexuals to serve their country without disrupting the combat effectiveness of the military. Nearly two decades after its implementation, it is working. Ultimately, a person’s sexual preference is not relevant to the mission of the armed forces. Our Soldiers should be singlemindedly focused on accomplishing the mission. If that is the case, why permit open homosexuality knowing the negative consequences and implications? What is the urgent, pressing need for Soldiers to identify themselves by sexual preference? Of course, it is likely that the answer to these questions is that doing so advances a political agenda, the combat effectiveness of the armed forces be damned.
DADT works, and should not be changed at this time. If Congress does approve a repeal, however, it should only be done at the specific request of the armed forces, with broad consensus, and without the threat or coercion of political correctness or activism. Repeal would also require the prohibition of service in the combat arms also be extended to gays.