Tuesday, a U.S. federal court judge’s ruling seems to signal the end of the military ban on openly gay service members. The judge ordered the military to immediately halt the ban against homosexuals openly serving in the armed forces.
The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, put in force by President Bill Clinton, required service members to remain silence about their sexual orientation. It allowed gay service members to secretly serve in the military, requiring them to remain silence about their homosexuality. Similarly, it barred superior officers from delving into service members’ sexual orientation without good reason to believe that the policy was being violated. However, under the federal judge’s ruling, the military can no longer bar openly gay members from service.
U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips ruled that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy violated service members’ rights to due process, freedom of speech, and the right to petition the government for redress. In addition, Judge Phillips ordered the military to immediately cease enforcement of the policy because “it irreparably injures service members by infringing their constitutional rights.”
The Justice Department has 60 days to appeal the ruling, but it is unclear whether they will do so or not. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has vocalized his preference that the matter be settled by Congress and not by the courts. “It has enormous consequences for our troops,” he said. “I feel strongly this is an action that needs to be taken by the Congress and that it is an action that requires careful preparation,” he added. Nonetheless, Secretary Gates acknowledged that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was a policy that would end.
No doubt, the timing of the military’s reversal of the policy is critical. It is not an action that can be implemented haphazardly or it might have disastrous consequences. Officials at the Pentagon have recognized that allowing gay personnel to openly serve in the armed forces will require dramatic changes in policy. For instance, will homosexual personnel be housed in the same quarters as heterosexual personnel? Will spousal benefits be extended to partners of gay service members?
Another consideration of allowing gay personnel to openly serve in the military is its impact upon unit cohesiveness. The repercussions of such a monumental change in policy during a time of war could have wide-reaching consequences. Unit cohesiveness is an integral part of the effectiveness of any fighting unit. It is a bond between service members that is forged under difficult and stressful circumstances while service members endure the stresses of military duty. When personnel are housed together in barracks, eat in the same “chow” hall, train endlessly together, and serve side-by-side upon the battlefield, a unit cohesiveness forms that is crucial to the successful performance of the military organization. Experiencing the horrors of combat together only serves to tighten these bonds. When unit cohesiveness is jeopardized, it negatively impacts morale, discipline, and order.
Allowing openly gay service members to serve in the military might serve as a barrier to unit cohesion, especially in the combat arms units. It seems many opponents of “don’t ask, don’t tell” equate military service to the civilian workplace environment. True, there are occupations within the military whereas such a comparison might be accurately drawn, but not in the combat arms units. These fighting units include those service members who are actually involved in hands-on combat, such as the infantry, artillery, and cavalry. In these divisions, comradeship must not be jeopardized. For instance, if openly gay men are allowed to serve in the same unit, it seems reasonable to assume that romantic relationships will inevitably occur. These encounters between unit personnel are unacceptable and downright dangerous to the integrity of the organization. At some point, a percentage of these relationships will end negatively, which could create serious problems in regard to unit cohesion. As in civilian life, there are jealousies to consider when any relationship disintegrates. Correspondingly, the same line of reasoning has been used to effectively argue against women serving in the combat arms. Such relationships are a direct threat to unit comradeship.
Many people wish to ignore the dangers posed by allowing openly gay service members to serve in the armed forces. Dismantling the structure created by “don’t ask, don’t tell” will create a new and dangerous dynamic within the military, which will pose a direct threat to unit cohesion. Thus, it will impact the ability of the United States to effectively wage war. Now is not the time to conduct a social experiment within the ranks of the armed forces. Ultimately, this is not a social issue, but a matter of national security.