11.05.10

Inside the Pentagon's DADT War

As the battle continued this week, former Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre talked to military officials who say the debate is nothing more than an unnecessary wartime distraction.

The commander in chief’s effort to allow gay soldiers to serve openly suffered a double-barreled setback this week—and some senior military officers may be quietly applauding.

Even though President Obama prefers to lift the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy through legislation, the drive to repeal it at all hit major roadblocks: one in the courts and the other in the court of public opinion, with Republicans—many of whom support the existing policy—making big gains in the midterm elections.

“Here we are in the middle of a war we might not be winning, and we’re focusing resources and efforts on DADT?”

While the president says the "overwhelming majority of Americans" share his view that ending discrimination against gays is "the right thing to do," the military remains sharply divided over the issue, a gap that is especially wide among senior commanders.

A federal appeals court in San Francisco this week allowed the military to continue the ban on gays serving openly while opponents appeal a judge’s ruling that the law is unconstitutional.

In 1993, President Clinton learned the hard way the difficulty of changing the policy without the full support of the military brass, and so far, Obama, has only one solid uniformed advocate, his hand-picked military adviser, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen.

Mullen has crafted his argument on a bedrock military value: integrity.

"We have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are," Mullen told the Senate Armed Serves Committee back in February.

But Mullen’s fellow chiefs are withholding judgment, preferring to wait for the results of the Pentagon's survey of the active-duty military attitudes and opinions on the issue.

And interviews with current and recently retired officers reveal that while there's general acceptance of gays, there isn't necessarily a change of heart about the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

"I don't think a lot of the force is where Mullen is," says one retired admiral who works closely with senior officers in the Pentagon. "They think this is a solution to a non-problem, especially in the Army."

There is an undercurrent of resentment, especially among some more senior officers, who see the whole debate as a social issue that's an unnecessary wartime distraction.

"On the one hand, it really won't make much difference,” says one Marine officer. “Sexual orientation has nothing to do with how effective a soldier can be. On the other hand, the timing of this whole kerfuffle could not be worse, in my opinion. Here we are in the middle of a war we might not be winning, and we're focusing resources and efforts on DADT? It's a needless distraction."

That kind of back-channel resistance can give opponents of change in Congress just enough justification to avoid the issue, which is why the president is left hoping for action in the lame-duck session, before Republicans take charge of the House.

Results of the Pentagon's survey will be out next month, but preliminary data from an independent survey of active-duty troops being conducted by the Civil-Military Research Center in Texas provides a hint of where troops stand.

On the question of whether the military should allow homosexuals to openly participate in military service, roughly 64 percent are in favor or ambivalent, and 34 percent are either somewhat or strongly opposed.

The numbers split predictably by age and rank, says Donald S. Inbody, director of Texas State University's Center for Research, Public Policy, and Training, who's conducting the research. "The more junior the individual, the more likely they will be either neutral on repealing DADT or in favor of it. The more senior they are, the more likely they are to not be in favor of repealing DADT," said Inbody.

The problem, say some officers privately, is that while a majority may be OK with ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the minority is sizable enough to create "turbulence" right as the U.S. military is struggling with bigger challenges—like finding a winning strategy in Afghanistan.

Commanders also worry the military will be caught up in endless court cases, as the limits of the new "gay-friendly" policy are tested. What happens when a same-sex military couple marries in Massachusetts, and then sues for spousal benefits, one officer worries?

But what many in the military find most disturbing is how the military experience increasingly seems disconnected from society as a whole. As one Army colonel put it, "Is the military a true cross-section of society, since there is no draft?”

Adm. Mullen says he believes "the great men and women" of the U.S. military will adjust. "I never underestimate their ability to adapt." And history shows that many changes that have met resistance in the military, such as women in combat, were affected with no diminution of good order and discipline.

One recently retired four-star general, who says many gays served honorably under him, concedes the change is probably inevitable. "My sense is that it’s a generational thing now," he said. "If it’s repealed, my guess is that the military will adjust pretty quickly. The issue should be what is in the best interest of good order and discipline of the armed forces, and that standard has to be met by all and it must be fair to all."

Jamie McIntyre is the former Senior Pentagon Correspondent for CNN, and an adjunct professor of Journalism at the University of Maryland. He blogs on military and media issues at "Jamie McIntyre's Line of Departure," lineofdeparture.com