James Carroll

Behind the folly of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

By James Carroll
October 5, 2009

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NOW THEY tell us. Sixteen years after institutionalizing a denigration of gay people, the Pentagon is discovering that its “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy has been a moral catastrophe. Undermining the morale it was supposed to protect, it has been “wholly inconsistent with a core military value - integrity.’’ That’s the conclusion of an upcoming article in the Joint Force Quarterly, from the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - reported on last week by the Globe’s Bryan Bender. The journal article, based on a study conducted at the National Defense University, issues a forthright call for a repeal of the ban on homosexuals in the military.

That the Pentagon itself is the source of compelling criticism of the military’s own policy, just at the time when the Obama administration is trying to find a politically savvy way of undoing it, brings this immorality tale full circle. The immorality, of course, belongs not to gays, but to the government. How was this absurd and cruel structure of deceit erected in the first place - and what hidden purpose did it actually serve?

The myth is that Bill Clinton made the first major mistake of his presidency by trying to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military. The story is that he forced the issue, and when military leaders pushed back, he settled for the disheartening compromise of “Don’t Ask.’’ But in fact, Clinton did not raise the subject. He had promised to lift the ban during the campaign, but it was not he who set the postelection agenda.

The issue was imposed on him, first by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time, General Colin Powell, who in his memoir says that he raised the question himself in his first meeting with the president-elect in November 1992; then by the Joint Chiefs together, who themselves brought it up as an “urgent’’ concern in their first meeting with Clinton shortly after the inauguration.

Powell and the chiefs were preempting the president by making their opposition clear. That the commanders were all but open in their insubordination is what set the Republicans free to eat Clinton’s lunch. The “don’t ask’’ policy was a foolish Clinton attempt at compromise, but it was made law in September 1993. Powell and Senator Robert Dole crossruffed Clinton and swept the tricks.

The US military, obeying President Harry Truman’s 1948 desegregation order, had led the nation on its journey toward racial equality. By contrast, the military in our time has been a sponsor of the savage demonizing of homosexuals that has defined the culture wars.

But there has been another, equally grave consequence of the policy, because there was something else not being asked, and not being told. Recall that the Pentagon-sponsored flare-up over gays occurred exactly as the Cold War ended. The humiliating emasculation of Clinton’s authority over the military left gays vulnerable. But it had an even more drastic consequence, destroying his ability to reshape the national security establishment that America had constructed in opposition to the Soviet Union. With the abrupt disappearance of that enemy, history had offered up a golden moment, but it was missed.

The Pentagon used the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ flap to distract the nation from the deeper issue: “Don’t ask us about our budget,’’ the brass was saying, in effect, “and we won’t tell you about our nukes.’’ Clinton ordered a “nuclear posture review’’ in 1993, anticipating major change, but instead the Pentagon affirmed the nuclear status quo as a “hedge,’’ and Clinton buckled.

It was a classic case of scapegoating - an in-group using contempt for an out-group to maintain its power. Gays were thrown onto the tracks along which a new post-Cold War world was coming, a world in which America’s uniformed royalty would have been dethroned. And it worked. The princes of war are still in charge, as the Obama administration learns every day.

One would like simply to take the military’s coming reassessment of “don’t ask’’ as a signal of its having caught up with the rest of society in respecting gay rights, but it probably points to something else, as well.

The Pentagon, with its wars, record budget, system of global dominance, and ferocious grip on the American imagination, no longer needs the scapegoat.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly appears in the Globe.

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