General's remarks bring Pentagon homophobia out of the closet

March 19, 2007|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- The nation's top military officer, Gen. Peter Pace, has expressed regret for comments he made recently about gays serving in the armed forces. But it's better that he said what he believed out loud and on the record.

This month, General Pace told the Chicago Tribune that the Pentagon should keep the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, adding: "I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts. I do not believe the United States is well served by a policy that says it is OK to be immoral in any way."

General Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said nothing about "good order and discipline." He didn't claim that gays in the military would disrupt "unit cohesion." He didn't make the claim that gay troops can't shoot or salute or serve with valor. Instead, he acknowledged a rank prejudice.

Unwittingly, the general dropped the fa?ade that has covered the homophobia rampant among the top officer corps. That's progress. Now, the White House, military officials and congressional leaders can have a frank discussion of the risks of allowing simple bigotry to dictate fitness for the armed forces.

Last month, Democratic Rep. Martin T. Meehan of Massachusetts reintroduced a bill to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," a compromise adopted in 1993 to appease military officials who were up in arms about President Bill Clinton's effort to end the ban against gays in the military. Under the policy, gays and lesbians may serve only if they keep their sexual orientation private and don't engage in homosexual acts. Mr. Meehan's bill would allow gays to serve openly.

Since "don't ask, don't tell" was adopted, the gay rights movement has gained support; younger Americans, including many serving in the armed forces, don't have the knee-jerk disapproval seen among their older counterparts. A February Harris poll found that 55 percent of people favor allowing gays to serve openly.

Equally important, the military has bogged down in Iraq and desperately needs more recruits for its all-volunteer armed forces. In 2005, the Government Accountability Office estimated that about 10,000 gay personnel had been drummed out of the military in the first decade of "don't ask, don't tell," including about 800 whose jobs were considered "mission critical." Among those were 54 Arabic speakers - at a time when the military and the State Department are desperate for fluency in major Middle Eastern languages.

In January, retired Gen. John Shalikashvili, a former chairman of the joint chiefs, wrote in a newspaper column, "I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces."

Truth be told, most top officers know that gay troops don't undermine efficacy, disrupt unit cohesion or erode discipline.

One of the dirty little secrets of Pentagon policy is its hypocrisy: When soldiers are needed for battle, the purges of gay men and women drop significantly, as studies have shown. That's been true in every conflict since World War II.

Order, discipline and cohesion are never more critical than when troops are taking fire. So if gay troops are disruptive, it would seem absolutely crucial to keep them out of hot zones. But that's not the way it works. They're more likely to be dismissed when they come home.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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