History in the Making
It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do…For me personally, it comes down to integrity; theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.
–Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
Admiral Michael Mullen brought honor to his office and to his country today with some of the most courageous testimony Congress has ever heard from a chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Declaring, “I have served with homosexuals since 1968…everybody in the military has,” Mullen placed his personal prestige squarely behind Barack Obama’s commitment to repeal the hideous policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which has done so much to weaken America’s national security since it was enacted in 1993.
“No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” said Admiral Mullen. “I also believe that the great young men of our military, can and would accommodate such a change–I never underestimated their ability to adapt.”
The contrast between Mullen’s bravery and Colin Powell’s cold cowardice could not have been more dramatic. Back when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1993, it was an unholy alliance between General Powell and Georgia Senator Sam Nunn which made it impossible for Bill Clinton to keep his campaign promise to allow gays to serve openly in the military.
Within the last year, both Nunn and Powell have called for a re-examination of the policy–but neither of them has shown anything like the valor of Admiral Mullen, or former Joint Chiefs chairman John M. Shalikashvili, who called for a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell three years ago in The New York Times.
Although Powell rose to the pinnacle of the American military because of the courage of President Harry Truman, who ended the segregation of the armed forces, Powell never understood his obligation to do the same thing for gay people that Truman had done for African-Americans.
Instead, Powell declared, “Skin color is a benign nonbehavioral characteristic. Sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics. Comparison of the two is a convenient but invalid argument.”
Today, Senator Roland Burris shamed Powell by drawing the exact comparison Powell had shunned. After expressing his “deep admiration” for Admiral Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who also declared his support for a new policy, Burris recalled:
You go back to President Truman, who took the audacity to integrate the services. At one time my uncle couldn’t even serve in the military–and we’ve moved to this point where [African-Americans are] some of the best and brightest that we have. Generals, and even, now, the commander in chief is of African-American heritage… The policy must be changed and we must have everyone who is capable, willing and able to defend this great tradition of ours to have the opportunity to serve, regardless to their sexual orientation…I hope we will get moving on this issue, and not be wasting the tax payers time on something that is so basic to human rights and individuals in this country.
Secretary Gates declared, “The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it.”
John McCain was a parody of an out-of-touch old man. “I’m deeply disappointed in your statement,” the Arizona Senator told the secretary of defense. “Your statement is obviously one that is deeply biased.”
In an implied rebuke to McCain, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado recalled that it was another Senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, who observed, “You don’t have to be straight to shoot straight.”
Udall told Admiral Mullen, “the centerpiece of your statement will long be remembered for its courage and integrity.”
What makes McCain’s position even more embarrassing? The Washington Post points out tonight that his statement today reverses the honorable position he held three years ago: “The day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, ‘Senator, we ought to change the policy,’ then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it because those leaders in the military are the ones we give the responsibility to.” (McCain’s spokesman explained that since Mullen’s position was a “personal” one, the chairman of the joint chiefs no longer counts as a military leader.)
Even Joe Lieberman, who opposed the current policy back in 1993, remains sane and sensible on this subject. “What matters most is not how a military person lives their private sexual life” but whether “they are prepared to risk their lives for their country,” the Connecticut Senator declared. “Someone in a tank today is going to care a lot more about the capability and the courage of that soldier than about his sexual orientation… I thank you both for saying the question now is not whether but how.”
Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is another strong supporter of a repeal of the law, while his counterpart in the House, Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton, favors a continuation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
In the days before today’s testimony, Elisabeth Bumiller scored a scoop by reporting in The Times that the Pentagon would ease its enforcement of the current policy, by taking no action “to discharge service members whose sexual orientation is revealed by third parties or jilted partners.”
But Bumiller–as well as Craig Whitlock and Michael D. Shear, writing in the Washington Post –all failed to report the most significant legislative development in the fight to repeal the law: the fact that Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy now has 187 co-sponsors in the House on a bill to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
The only news story which mentioned that fact was Yochi J. Dreazen’s article in The Wall Street Journal. (Although Bumiller omitted Murphy, The Times did mention him and his bill in an excellent editorial on January 28.)
Congressman Murphy is a two-term Democrat from Pennsylvania, who served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and was the first Iraq veteran elected to Congress.
“The momentum is clearly on our side,” Murphy told the Journal. “It’s time for Congress to have the guts to stop turning its back on talented and professional soldiers just because they’re gay. I served with great soldiers who were thrown out just because they were gay. I was disheartened that the Constitution that I took an oath to support and defend was really being abused by that policy.”
Among Murphy’s other reasons for supporting repeal of the law through his own Military Readiness Enhancement Act:
- Since 1994, over 13,000 servicemembers - the equivalent of 3 ½ combat brigades- have been discharged as a result of DADT.
- In the last five years, while our country has been engaged in two wars, the military has discharged over 800 mission-critical troops under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” including over 50 Arabic linguists.
- Up to $1.3 billion in taxpayer money has been wasted discharging otherwise qualified troops under DADT. It costs the military at least $60,000 to recruit and train each new servicemember, and much more to prosecute and pursue separations under DADT.
Polls show roughly 60 percent of the American public is in favor of allowing gay people to serve openly in the armed forces, and passage of Murphy’s law by the House now seems extremel likely. Getting a filibuster-proof majority of sixty votes in the Senate would be very difficult indeed, but Senator Levin suggested today that the reform could be enacted by a simple majority, if the law change was made through an amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill.
If Barack Obama can finally bring this new measure of equality into law, it will go a long way toward diffusing the anger of his gay supporters, who are deeply disappointed by the president’s paltry achievements on behalf of the gay community during his first year in the White House. It would also give him one of the most important progressive victories of his presidency.
Update: AFSCME weighs in on the side of justice here.
Second Update: On NBC Nightly News, Admiral Mullen’s historic testimony was story #2; on CBS, story #3, and Pentagon correspondents Jim Miklaszewski and David Martin both did pedestrian pieces. Only ABC’s Martha Raddatz distinguished herself with the novel idea of including someone who could be directly affected by the policy change–Lt. Dan Choi, the gay Arabic-speaking linguist now facing dismissal for publicly announcing his sexual orientation. Diane Sawyer’s World News was also the only network broadcast to lead with the story.
Kudos to Diane.
Third Update: See Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council prove his worthiness to live in Uganda by calling for the recriminalization of gay sex, during a debate with Aubrey Sarvis of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network on the Chris Matthews Show.
Question: Why do so many of the most virulent opponents of equal rights for gay people seem so…gay?
Answer: People who know they are straight never feel the least bit threatened by those who are not. This is the experience of gay people everywhere.
Fourth Update: From another fine editorial in The New York Times: “The United States has traveled far since 1993 on gay rights. It is ready for a military built on a commitment to equal rights for all.”
Lest we forget–whatever its other failings–this newspaper has done more to promote gay equality in the last twenty years than all the other newspapers in the world put together.
Quite a contrast to a previous New York Times.
Fifth Update: Seventeen years too late: Colin Powell finally gets it right.
“In the almost 17 years since the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’legislation was passed, attitudes and circumstances have changed. I fully support the new approach presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week by Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”