Full Court Press
Whenever the debate about allowing gay people to serve openly in the military bubbles up, someone always grabs for the wreath reserved for whoever offers the most outrageous sound bite.
After last week’s historic testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee by Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen –“It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do”–that hallowed wreath was seized by Michael O’Hanlon.
A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a venerable and quasi-liberal think tank whose motto is “Quality, Independence, Impact,” O’Hanlon managed to combine intemperance with pristine ignorance with this memorable declaration on CNN:
“We can talk about this delicately or we can just be fairly direct. There are a lot of 18-year-old, old-fashioned, testosterone-laden men in the military who are tough guys. They’re often politically old-fashioned or conservative; they are not necessarily at the vanguard, in many cases, of accepting alternative forms of lifestyle.”
Up ‘till now, O’Hanlon’s main contribution on the Times op-ed page and everywhere else has been constant cheerleading for continuous escalation of American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and usually he is a bit more articulate than this. He told me that it was only because of his position in favor of the surge that Frank Rich and Glenn Greenwald had brought attention to this idiotic quote. According to O’Hanlon, these journalists had considered him “their enemy” ever since O’Hanlon supported that escalation. To which Greenwald replied, “There’s the little matter of the war itself–y’know, like, starting it.”
In any case, the big news that Rich, Greenwald and FCP all missed upon reading O’Hanlon’s testosterone-laden quote is a little surprising: besides being ignorant and abusive, O’Hanlon was actually providing ammunition to those who oppose his point of view!
It turns out that O’Hanlon is actually in favor of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.
When I reached O’Hanlon on the phone at Brookings, I began by reading his quote back to him, which led to this exchange:
O’Hanlon: Maybe I can start by speaking for myself, instead of responding to some pointed questions that you’re putting my way?
FCP: I’m asking you to respond to words that you spoke yourself.
MO: And you’re calling with some presumption that I want to have this conversation. And that there’s something about this moment that’s good, when I haven’t called you back, even though I already got your message. [It’s true: after he ignored my first message, I had the gall to call him a second time.] Let me just put a couple of things out there the way I would like to put them out there. And we’ll come back to your point in a second, if you want.
MO: First of all, I am a supporter of repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and I have been in print on that point before. I do not support the policy. I actually believe that openly gay and lesbian individuals should be allowed to serve in the military. I’m sure you’re familiar with how the media works. And when you do a sound bite, you usually do 15 minutes in the interview, and they choose which sound bite to use.
FCP is, indeed, familiar with the workings of devious reporters. So after we finished our first conversation, I called O’Hanlon back to make absolutely sure I had understood him correctly:
FCP: If in fact we’d seen your entire interview with CNN, it would have been clear that you were in favor of repealing the policy?
MO: Yeah. I will acknowledge the conversation that you and I had earlier–kind of thinking through all the nuances in the 18-year-old–20-year-old demographic and how some parts of that group are more, let’s say, progressive than they used to be, and other parts may not be. I didn’t get into all that in great detail in the interview. But I always speak clearly about the overall policy whenever I have a chance.
Taken together with “they choose which sound bite to use,” this seemed to suggest that in its on-air report, as well as a story on its website, CNN had knowingly misrepresented O’Hanlon’s position. So I queried a CNN spokesperson:
“I am writing you to try to confirm that O’Hanlon did in fact call for repeal of the current law in his full interview with CNN.”
To which CNN’s Edie Emery replied, “During the CNN interview, Mr. O’Hanlan did not take a position in the interview. He was not asked.”
A subsequent e-mail to O’Hanlon asking him to clear up this little discrepancy has yet to elicit any response.
Now, for a moment, let us examine the substance of O’Hanlon’s remarkable statement. I asked,
“Are you familiar with any of the literature on this subject? Or is this kind of off the top of your head?”
To which he replied, “No, I’m familiar with the literature as well.”
But when I followed up–“Which part of the literature is it that would support what you’ve said here on CNN?”–he suggested that I should “take a step back”; he never got around to answering that quetion.
Then I tried to point out the fundamental fallacy in his statement:
“Actually, all of the statistical polling data of both soldiers and non-soldiers would suggest that 18 year-olds, having grown up in a culture in which gay life was very much part of that culture–unlike 50-year-olds and 60-year olds–are in fact, I think, according to most poll data, the ones most likely to be accepting of this change. And that’s why your quote jumped out at me as not being reflective of the data as we know it.”
O’Hanlon called that “a fair counterpoint,” but went on to say “there is also a group of very young people who are not the most cosmopolitan in our country… Not to, again, paint with too broad of a brush but there is a certain over-representation especially in sort of the infantry ranks and the combat ranks of a fairly traditional mind set, mentality, on these kinds of issues…I still stand by what I said. I think this particular group of people is a little less tolerant than the image you’ve got of the average American eighteen-year-old.”
To fully understand O’Hanlon’s willful ignorance on this subject, it is necessary to consult Unfriendly Fire, Nathaniel Frank’s brilliant and definitive book on this subject, published last year. Frank’s theme is that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell long ago became a joke, and having a policy that is unenforced, unenforceable, and widely mocked only undercuts military discipline by keeping on the books policies that are not followed or respected.
But it is Rear Admiral John Huston (RET.), former JAG of the Navy, and one of the formulators of the current policy, whose testimony is most relevant. Huston told Frank that even ten years ago, in 2000,
“Things had changed so considerably, that I think 18- and 19- and 20-year-olds were just laughing at us because we didn’t understand what they were thinking. Young people had so dramatically opened up to the idea of working alongside openly gay people that us crusty old farts protecting them was just a joke.“
“This is a policy,” Huston continued, that was “devised primarily by men who, like me, were born in the ‘40s and grew up in the ‘50s, but was being imposed on people who were at that time born in the ‘70s and grew up in the ‘80s. Now it’s born in the ‘80s and grew up in the ‘90s or the early 2000s. So there’s this huge gulf, and the changes that have occurred since then…” Hutson trailed off and took silent for a moment of thought. “I mean, I’m an Episcopalian, guess who my bishop is?” He was referring to Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, who was elected to the position in 2003. Hutson went on. “Queer eye for a straight guy,” he said slowly, getting the title of the television show almost right, “Ellen DeGeneres, things are so much different now than they were then.
Hutson also said that the unit cohesion argument has now been “been completely reversed.” Telling military members that they “can’t deal with” open gays, that they’re not mature enough or well disciplined enough, “is divisive.” Today, stopping discrimination and instituting a policy of equal treatment “will enhance rather than detract from unit cohesion..It will make us a stronger force rather than a less strong force and it’s a good thing for the country.” Hutson’s biggest fear is that the U.S. military, an institution he reveres and is proud to have served, is “falling further and further behind” where the American public is. “This is what’s discouraging to me,” he said. “I don’t want an institution for which I have great affection to be antiquated in its ideas. The military is better than that.”
If people like O’Hanlon read books like Unfriendly Fire, instead of pontificating without a clue about what they were talking about, we might actually get the rapid change in policy that the country deserves.
As Nathaniel Frank told me today, “the problem with the debate you’re having with O’Hanlon is that this issue has a history of ungrounded alarmism that is out of proportion to other military policy changes. Operationally, having women in combat is a much tougher change for the military, but politically, it’s the gay thing that has caused all the doomsday scenarios. Any policy change can incur short-term adjustments, but in this case the research strongly suggests that short-term adjustment costs will be far outweighed by the long-term benefits.”
Aaron Belkin, who is Frank’s colleague at the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where all of the most serious research on this subject has taken place, put it this way:
“Dr. O’Hanlon is correct in noting that the last thing the military or the country needs now is a polarizing debate. The way to avoid that is for the President to sign a stop-loss order suspending implementation of the ban, or for Senator Levin to include a moratorium in the Chairman’s mark up of the defense budget bill. The current plan to study rather than to act will invite the polarization that Dr. O’Hanlon fears.”