Friday, May 28, 2010

Don't Tell, Act!

The policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was a peculiarly American compromise. It satisfied nobody and it was inevitable that it would not be able to continue long term. Meanwhile the military did what they always do, namely their job, protecting these shores. The military, like the police, are a cohesive body which successfully functions, regardless of what is thrown at it by its political masters. They simply adapt and move on.

Anyone who has served in any kind of coherent team in civilian life where total reliance on each other is essential, knows that you trust your team members totally. You don't stop to ask the person holding the rope lowering you down what type of genitalia they prefer. Sex has no place in the workplace and should not affect team performance. When your safety is in the hands of other team members, a bond inevitably forms and in my experience declarations of religious belief or sexual orientation do not change this. People are respected for who they are, and when the moment comes, all are expected to perform their role appropriately.

In truth, sexuality is much less of an issue than it once was. There are many nations where it was illegal within living memory and where the repeal was once hugely controversial. Most young people do not have the prejudices of the older generations and are much more open and tolerant towards all forms of diversity. This is largely because they have grown up with the access which the internet provides and exposure to many more people than would once have been possible. Hence many young people know at least one, and generally more than one, person within their circle of immediate acquaintances who is of a different sexual orientation to theirs. It is therefore regrettable that policy is generally made by much older people, whose attitudes were established long ago, and are often one step behind the rest of society.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was introduced under the Clinton administration. Previously it was illegal to be gay within the military and all forces personnel were required to affirm that they were not. Under this new policy military members would no longer be asked if they were homosexual and unless they did anything to bring attention to their sexuality they would be permitted to serve even if they were gay. It was a step towards allowing gay personnel to serve in the military but definitely not enough to satisfy the lobby which wanted this.

When it comes to issues of equality sometimes great courage is needed to legislate. There is only so long that people are prepared to accept denying who they are and feeling they are unfairly treated. Slavery proved an extremely divisive issue in this country's past and it took a war to finally resolve it. Racial segregation was another extremely controversial area of civil rights and it took a Supreme Court ruling, considerably in advance of where public opinion was at that time, to initiate a process which brought it to an end. That ruling probably saved America from much future civil unrest and few people would now question it was the right thing to do. In contrast to the decisiveness of the Supreme Court in this situation, the way in which Congress handled the issue of gay people in the military was one of constant buck-passing.

Gathering information is a necessary part of the legislative process however it should be used to inform decision making not to replace it. Once you have established in your mind what the moral position is, there is only one ethical thing to do, which is to act. Anything else is simply a failure of backbone. I have more respect for those who always argued against the inclusion of gays in the military on religious grounds and voted consistently, than those who denounced the inequality but were content to do nothing on the issue.

The way in which the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" vote was handled by the House of Representatives was particularly unfortunate. Having established a consultative exercise and impact study which had only just got underway, Robert Gates (Secretary of Defense) reported, among others, that this timing was not good and had the potential to cause confusion and concern. Service personnel had been promised the opportunity to have their say and while the consultation would continue the conclusion had already been reached making it appear largely worthless. In an ideal world it would not have been handled in this way however the confusion was due to a surfeit of timidity in those same politicians who now only rushed to a form of legislative conclusion only due to their fear that they would be penalized for lack of action by their electorate, having been previously more than happy to delay indefinitely.

Having said I have respect for the consistent opponents I must acknowledge there was some duplicity on the part of some of the opposition. There were some who were content to hide behind the problem with the review without admitting whatever the conclusion of the final report was they would still oppose it. The House of Representatives vote illustrated the worst of American politics. The politicians were dragged kicking and screaming to a vote they had long sought to avoid making, what will be depicted as a moral position was nothing of the sort, though it appears to be a repeal the final decision is actually left elsewhere which is an abdication of responsibility. Moreover the vote was heavily divided on party lines with only 5 Republicans voting in favor and only 26 Democrats voting against. It is very sad that some greater consensus could not be reached. In addition the repeal was one of many amendments tacked onto the end of a military funding bill. This practice of burdening legislation with often last-minute amendments, in many cases only partially-related at best to the theme of the bill, merely to satisfy lobby groups, should become unacceptable. An issue of this national importance deserved to be a piece of primary legislation not an appendix and had politicians got their act together earlier it could have been. Instead one messy compromise was repealed by another messy compromise. Hardly the lifeblood of history.

So if the Senate votes the same way, and its Armed Services Committee has already done so, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will ultimately become history. Will it be missed? I don't think so. Many countries, including the one of my birth, now have openly gay people serving in the military and the impact has been minimal. I have great faith in the professionalism of the US military and no doubt they will adapt appropriately. This was the view expressed by Congressman Joe Sestak, the highest ranking military officer to ever have been elected to the House of Representatives, who enthusiastically spoke in favor of the repeal. Watching this whole debate I have come to the conclusion it tells us less about the military than it does the state of contemporary US politics. What is undeniable is that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" had a negative effect on the US forces. It led to the discharge of many personnel who were needed for operational effectiveness, including a number of experts in Arab languages and culture, at a time when with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, these were a precious resource in short supply. There were also suicides which can hardly have been good for morale. Yet rather than tackle head-on this difficult and controversial issue, with the many problems it was causing, the politicians preferred to do nothing. Yesterday I commented on a former governor's inability to make decisions but I am not sure this was limited to just him. Decision-making is no longer a skill required on Capitol Hill. The objective is to appear as busy as possible whilst achieving as little as possible. Only a political establishment which had itself abrogated moral responsibility could believe it was ever acceptable to implement a policy which punished people for telling the truth.

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