Joint Chiefs oppose End of military allowing gays in military Top officers want ban to remain

January 23, 1993|By Eric Schmitt | Eric Schmitt,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- In an angry challenge to the administration's promise to lift the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are fighting to persuade President Clinton to reverse his campaign pledge, senior military officials said yesterday.

Defense Secretary Les Aspin's first meeting on Thursday with the Joint Chiefs was dominated by an emotional, two-hour discussion of their concerns that repealing the ban would wreck morale, undermine recruiting, force devoutly religious service members to resign and increase the risk of AIDS for heterosexual troops, senior officers said.

The Joint Chiefs are to meet with Mr. Clinton Monday to voice opposition to the plan.

The repeal of the ban would come in two steps. Initially, the military would be directed informally to suspend enforcement of the ban. Then the president would issue an executive order lifting it in several months.

The Joint Chiefs' firm support is crucial if the new policy is to succeed. In the military chain of command, officers and enlisted personnel take their cues from superiors on such social issues as sexual harassment and racial discrimination.

Many officers said they believed that Mr. Clinton had promised to consult them before making a decision, and were furious that they learned of the new approach from a news article.

"We feel we're in a position to convince the president that this would be the wrong decision," said one of the Chiefs, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But Pentagon aides, surprised and dismayed at the intensity of the Chiefs' reaction, said that only the means of carrying out the pledge remained open to discussion -- not the pledge itself.

"The meeting was entirely dominated by the gay issue," another Chief said. "At the end, we spent a few minutes on Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia."

Pentagon officials said Mr. Aspin wants to avoid a confrontation with senior uniformed advisers. "It was a give-and-take session but Aspin had his 'Receive' button pushed for a long time," one Pentagon aide said.

Military officials seemed generally pleased, too.

"Aspin listened to all our views and said they would all be taken into consideration," one Chief said.

Homosexual-rights advocates contend that military officials are exaggerating or distorting the effects of lifting the ban, and have urged Mr. Clinton to be tough with his top-ranking brass.

"Clinton will not get the support from his Joint Chiefs unless he takes full leadership by issuing a statement to be distributed to all troops that no form of verbal or physical harassment against gays in the military will be permitted," Jim Woodward, president of the San Diego Veterans Association, an organization for homosexual and bisexual veterans, said in a telephone interview.

While not openly defying Mr. Clinton, the Chiefs' strenuous opposition in private contrasts with the slightly more conciliatory tone in public statements that several officers made last month. The anger of the meeting with Mr. Aspin also differed from the muted, almost resigned response from the military to the news of Mr. Clinton's two-step compromise earlier this week.

Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is among the most forceful and articulate opponents of lifting the ban. He discussed the issue with Mr. Clinton Sunday at Blair House in Washington, before the inauguration, and several times with Mr. Aspin in the last week.

"We know we have a certain number of gays performing extremely well, but they're in the closet, and as long as they stay there we're fine," said one Navy admiral, acknowledging that thousands of homosexual men and women secretly serve in the military. "But when they come out of the closet and get pro-active, it'll be really nasty."

Officers opposed to the policy say that heterosexual service members would feel uncomfortable sharing group showers with acknowledged homosexuals or a dance floor at a military social club next to a homosexual couple.

Powell and senior Navy officials have also complained about such practical issues as sleeping berths on combat ships, where all-male crews are squeezed into triple bunks for six months at sea.

In addition, other general officers interviewed this week said a number of deeply religious service members might resign rather than serve alongside an avowed homosexual.

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