Friday, December 24, 2010

Ask and Tell

Kudos to Congress and President Obama for repealing the military's policy of, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," opening the way for gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces.

As a Roman Catholic, my church teaches that homosexual behaviour is sinful, but having a gay or lesbian sexual orientation is not (so yes, the Catholic Church would ask gays to remain celibate if they are to practice the faith). The distinction is that one chooses one's behaviour, but one does not choose one's innate orientation. However, such a discussion of the private morality of homosexual behaviour is irrelevant to a discussion of federal public policy in a nation with a constitutional guarantee not to respect the establishment of a particular religion. After all, who is to say that the Roman Catholic view or fundamentalist Protestant view of homosexuality should prevail over the Episcopalian view (our country's state church before the Revolution) that does not deem homosexual behaviour sinful? One (or multiple) church's view should not be the basis for public policy. For the devoutly faithful who view homosexual behaviour as sinful, the answer is quite simple: don't engage in it and leave everyone else alone.

Perhaps the intent of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," was an effort to separate behaviour from orientation. Being gay didn't disqualify you from service, simply being openly gay. Independent of whether or not the military, as a federal institution, should regulate personal and private morality (and conceding that the military has an interest in enforcing a code of conduct that would not otherwise apply in civilian life), this policy isn't simply about behaviour because simply stating one's sexual orientation is grounds for discharge under this policy. What we have asked gay men and women to do in order to serve their country is to lie, or at least be less than honest, about who they are. How is that compatible with a professional military that would other wise promote values of personal honour and integrity? It's not. The truth is, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," was never good policy. It was simply the best achievable result, politically, 17 years ago but in the end doesn't really satisfy gay patriots who wish to serve or those who wish to exclude them. Times have changed and this policy has outlived its limited usefulness.

The arguments for continuing, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," are mind-boggling in their naked bigotry. Senator McCain, the marine commandant, and apparently marine units have argued that including people who are openly gay will damage unit cohesion and diminish combat readiness. So the argument is that a gay patriot who is willing to fight and die for his country has to deny who he is to do so because his comrades in arms may be too bigoted or too unprofessional to handle to him being, "out of the closet?" Not only does this suggest that American service men and women are bigoted, but is also suggests that they are less professional than their British, Canadian, or Israeli counterparts who seem to have been able to accept openly gay comrades in arms. There will still be a military code of conduct that will apply to gay service men and women as well, including rules for fraternization. The integration of gay men and women into a service of trained and competent professionals should no more disrupt combat readiness than the introduction of women to an all male service did.

Rush Limbaugh is fond of saying that the only purpose of the military is to, "kill people and break their stuff." Ironically he uses this as an argument against allowing gays to serve openly because he maintains that the military should, therefore, not be a vehicle for experiments in social justice. But, on the contrary, it is an argument for greater inclusion. The military should not exclude competent, capable people who can help achieve its mission on the basis of arbitrary characteristics. As Milton Friedman teaches us in Capitalism and Freedom (pp.109-110), " entrepreneur who expresses preferences in his business activities that are not related to productive efficiency is at a competitive disadvantage to other individuals who do not. Such an individual is in effect imposing higher costs on himself than are other individuals who do not have such preferences." Granted, the military is not a business. However excluding competent capable people for reasons unrelated to their effectiveness will still have have the effect of making the military less efficient. Furthermore, since the military does not have economic competitors its short-sightedness will not drive it out of business, but rather will perpetuate its inefficiencies. Therefore, the President and Congress needed to act.

Last March, a former Air Force chief of staff, Merrill McPeak, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in favour of, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," ( In addition to denigrating the professionalism of men and women in uniform by making the, "unit cohesion," argument, General McPeak points out that there are many reasons for the military to exclude people from service that would be unacceptable in the civilian sector:

The services exclude, without challenge, many categories of prospective entrants. People cannot serve in uniform if they are too old or too young, too fat or too thin, too tall or too short, disabled, not sufficiently educated and so on. This, too, might be illegal in the civil sector. So why should exclusion of gay people rise to the status of a civil-rights issue, when denying entry to, say, unmarried individuals with sole custody of dependents under 18, does not?

The issue of an unmarried individual with sole custody of dependents under the age of 18 putting him or herself in harms way is a special case. However, the rest of General McPeak's other examples all pertain to issues of fitness for duty. Exclusion of gay people represents the exclusion of people independent of their capability or competence. The argument is particularly absurd when the same individual would be allowed to serve so long as no one knows that he or she is gay. Sixty or seventy years ago that last sentence could have read, "blacks," instead of, "gay people." I am sure "unit cohesion" arguments were made then too. The arguments were just as wrong then as they are now. One has as much ability to choose one's sexual orientation as one has the ability to choose one's skin colour.

Perhaps Barry Goldwater summed it up the best in a Larry King Live interview fifteen or more years ago when he argued that you didn't have be straight to serve in the military, you just needed to be able to shoot straight.