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OutRight: A Question of Morality … But Whose?

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Peter Pace can’t pick and choose with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’

Two news items in a single week in March together shed some interesting light on the current state of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT).

First, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, was asked by newspaper reporters to explain why he supports DADT. According to the Chicago Tribune, Pace defended the policy thus:

“I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts,” Pace said. “I do not believe the United States is well served by a policy that says it is OK to be immoral in any way.

“As an individual, I would not want [acceptance of gay behavior] to be our policy, just like I would not want it to be our policy that if we were to find out that so-and-so was sleeping with somebody else’s wife, that we would just look the other way, which we do not. We prosecute that kind of immoral behavior,” Pace said, apparently referring to the military’s own constitutionally questionable ban on sodomy.

The comments generated lots of criticism, including from conservative Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), a former Secretary of the Navy, who said, “I respectfully but strongly disagree with the chairman’s view that homosexuality is immoral.” Pace himself later clarified that he was expressing only his “personal” views.

A significant and growing minority of Americans disagree with Pace that homosexual acts are immoral.

Even if one thought homosexual acts were immoral, however, it doesn’t necessarily follow that gays should be disqualified from service. Lots of people do immoral things—lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery, commit crimes, take the Lord’s name in vain, are gluttonous and lustful, worship idols—but are not automatically disqualified from service on that account. In fact, whatever they think of the morality of homosexual sex, most Americans tell pollsters that they think gays should be able to serve.

Further, Pace’s view that allowing gays to serve openly would send a grand cultural message that we condone immorality is very questionable and oddly reductionist. We don’t send a message that lying is acceptable by allowing liars to serve.

And the predominant message of allowing gays to serve openly would not seem to be that we condone immorality but that we believe it is good and moral to serve in the military, especially in its hour of need. Why does Pace think that everything a gay person does is mainly about sex rather than, say, honorably serving one’s country, as thousands have done in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

All that aside, Pace did us a service by frankly expressing his own moral perspective in defense of the policy. A great many people, in and out of the military, share his idealistic moral perspective and would have answered in just the way he did. Though Pace and others would no doubt advance other reasons for excluding gays from service, it’s revealing that the moral objections came first. They seem to have been the main reason for the policy from the start.

To see why Pace’s honesty is so valuable, consider a second DADT news item the very same week. Discharges for homosexuality dropped again in 2006, down to 612 from 1,227 in 2001. Since the advent of the post 9/11 phase of the war on terror, when the country most needs the skills and bodies of its citizens on the front lines, expulsions for homosexuality have dropped by 50 percent.

The common and practical concerns about service by gay personnel expressed when President Clinton proposed lifting the ban in 1993—that there would be problems of unit cohesion and morale, damage to enlistment and retention rates, invasion of soldiers’ privacy—have been subordinated to the intense need for the service of these people we’ve trained and invested in.

When unit cohesion and morale are most important, in time of war, homosexuality is comparatively unimportant. Similarly, the experience of other nations’ militaries is that a few open homosexuals are not disruptive and that their service is more valuable than whatever small amount of unease it might cause a few straight soldiers.

Putting these two events together—the morality concerns expressed by Gen. Pace and the practical decline in DADT enforcement—yields an insight about how the respective views on the policy have flipped since 1993.

Back then, advocates of gay military service were scolded that the military is an intensely practical venture whose mission is to deter and fight wars—not a forum for advancing social causes (e.g., the egalitarian claims of homosexuals).

Now advocates of gay military service argue with considerable and growing empirical support that the military is an intensely practical venture whose mission to deter and fight wars is aided by allowing gays to serve without fear of reprisal and expulsion-not a forum for advancing social causes (e.g., the idea that homosexuality is immoral).

Under DADT, some 10,000 military personnel—including many with critical skills in which there’s a shortage, like Arab linguists—have been expelled from service solely because it’s learned they’re gay.

It is now opponents of gay military service who are left to advance a form of idealism that is disconnected from, and unsupported by, considerations of actual military need. Unpersuasive in abstraction, opponents of DADT have increasingly shifted to the practical; shorn of a practical foundation, supporters of DADT must increasingly shift to the abstract.

Writing from the conservative side, Dale Carpenter began his column for OutSmart in 1994, when he lived in Houston. Now residing in Minneapolis, Carpenter is a University of Minnesota Law School professor.

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