War is instructive: No matter how well things work in the peacetime military, when real bullets are flying, that’s when it becomes clear which policies yield victory, and which are pointless. The reality on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, after more than eight years of engagement, is that women are fighting effectively in combat positions, and gays and lesbians are serving in critical roles throughout the military.
American’s top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is asking for a significant increase in the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan within the next year. Now is an appropriate time to review and repeal the policies that handicap our field commanders and dishonor our soldiers, and bring them in line with reality.
Some gays and lesbians are serving openly and are accepted by a generation weaned on Ellen and Will & Grace. In a 2006 Zogby survey, 23 percent of soldiers said they knew someone gay in their unit. A commander’s dilemma: ignore the law—or spend time doing a lot of paperwork that will leave the unit short-handed.
Admiral Mullen and the other Joint Chiefs owe it to our troops to recognize the truth on the ground, respect the honor of our women soldiers and our gay and lesbian soldiers, and acknowledge the service that they are already rendering.
The same commander must skirt around the rule barring women from serving in units with a “direct ground combat” mission. Does the commander choose between the best soldier for the job and knowingly ignore the regulations? Or settle for someone who is perhaps less capable?
A soldier is a soldier. Despite a persistent “macho” mythos, it is becoming clear that neither gender nor sexual orientation is directly pertinent to a soldier’s ability to do their job. The reality is that women and gays are everywhere on the battlefield. Both gender and sexual orientation are indistinguishable to the enemy.
The original and unsubstantiated justification for the exclusion of women included that women lack the emotional stability and physical strength for combat and battlefield stress. The justification for the ban on homosexuals is that a service member’s admission of sexual orientation negatively affects the good order and discipline of a military unit. However, the Defense Department’s own studies, performed by the RAND Corporation in 2005 and 2007, found no factual basis for either of these claims.
Opposition to change remains. There is even resistance to additional studies to establish objective and measurable criteria for combat positions that would open the door to women qualifying for combat. These objections come from those who are no longer in the fight; they assume that their biases against women and gays are still widespread in today’s Army. They cling to an illusion that only straight men fight our wars. They are wrong. Fortunately, the opposition voice is being overtaken by a new generation and a new reality.
We now have a generation of women with combat experience. We now know that gays and lesbians have served honorably for decades. Current policies concerning the assignment of Army women and banning the service of openly gay and lesbian soldiers should be changed to reflect actual practices that are essential to wage this type of war.
We agree with Col. David Johnson (retired), Ph.D. and senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation:
”I just never got how we could put this warrior ethic in front of the obligation to defend the republic. It has always dumbfounded me why we don’t honor that more than we honor this ‘warrior tradition.’ ....Anyone who signs up for this life of service should be cherished. The criteria should not be who someone is, but what they believe and what they can do. Any American—race, creed, color, gender, sexual persuasion, and orientation, whatever—should be welcome… We are all Americans.”
The law has not yet caught up to the historical as well as present reality of war. We acknowledge that few in the military and government are anxious to rekindle the debate: Congress and this president say they will defer to the generals and admirals on these issues; the Defense Department has so far deferred to Congress. But now is the time for leadership. Admiral Mullen and the other Joint Chiefs owe it to our troops to recognize the truth on the ground, respect the honor of our women soldiers and our gay and lesbian soldiers, and acknowledge the service that they are already rendering.
Simply, all military jobs should be open to all soldiers who are qualified, competent, and able to perform them. Nothing more, nothing less. The American people and our military can handle the truth. It is time to change the rules and let women, gays, and lesbians serve as full participants. Tell Congress it’s time to correct the law.
Lieutenant Dan Choi graduated West Point in 2003. He is an Iraq combat veteran, infantry officer, and fluent Arabic speaker. Choi is the co-founder of Knights Out, a group of gay and lesbian West Point grads and their allies. He has been recommended for discharge after coming out publicly as gay earlier this year.
Donna McAleer graduated West Point in 1987 and served as a military police officer. She is the author of the forthcoming book Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point’s Long Gray Line.
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