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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Ban in Search of a Reason for Being

In March 2007, Stephen Benjamin was discharged from the Navy. An Arabic language translator, Benjamin fell prey to Bill Clinton's absurd 1993 compromise policy of "don't ask, don't tell." Under that rule, gays are allowed to serve in the military, but only so long as it's a big secret. If you tell anyone about your sexual orientation, for any reason, you're out. In Benjamin's case, it was text messages -- intercepted by military censors -- that made it clear that he and a former roommate stationed in Iraq were gay. They were fired.

"My supervisors did not want to lose me," he wrote in the New York Times in June of that same year. "Most of my peers knew I was gay, and that didn’t bother them. I was always accepted as a member of the team. And my experience was not anomalous: polls of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan show an overwhelming majority are comfortable with gays. Many were aware of at least one gay person in their unit and had no problem with it."

Despite a "desperate shortage of linguists," the Navy thought it was more important that intercepted intelligence pile up untranslated than to let some gay guy translate them. This is supposed to serve our national interests, because allowing gays to serve would somehow harm "unit cohesion." Seems to me that breaking up units to preserve their "cohesion" is astonishingly ludicrous -- it's like arguing you have to get divorced to save your marriage.

So it's hard to act surprised when you learn it's been a disaster. A 2006 study by the University of California on the effectiveness of "don't ask, don't tell" found it didn't really do much except fire good people and cost big ol' pile of money. And, for the purpose of this post, we'll define "big ol' pile of money" as $363.8 million in the less than ten years it had been since it was instituted. This was a fuller accounting of the entire cost than a previous study by the Government Accountability Office, which found that "the federal government spent at least $95.4 million to recruit and $95.1 million to train replacements" between 1994 and 2003 to make up for the personnel lost under the policy. Some, like Benjamin, have proved hard to replace. You can't really train people to speak a language without a common root to your own. Learning Arabic -- like Chinese or Hindi -- takes the average English speaker about a decade to reach fluency. Seems to me we don't have that kind of time. Especially when you consider that there would be a very real danger of these recruits deciding not to re-enlist during this time.

And many of the replacements we're spending so much to train and recruit aren't anywhere near as good as the people we've fired. The latest Harper's Index tells us that the Bush administration has "loosened" 9 restrictions on Army recruits since 2003, allowing 245% more felons to be recruited between 2004 and 2007. Good thing they aren't gay, though. You can sure trust a felon with a fully automatic rifle more than you can a gay, right?

Some politicians see the stupidity, absurdity, and just plain idiocy of the policy of "don't ask, don't tell."

Barack Obama, interviewed by The Advocate:

[I]think there’s increasing recognition within the Armed Forces that ["don't ask, don't tell"] is a counterproductive strategy -- ya know, we’re spending large sums of money to kick highly qualified gays or lesbians out of our military, some of whom possess specialties like Arab-language capabilities that we desperately need. That doesn’t make us more safe, and what I want are members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who are making decisions based on what strengthens our military and what is going to make us safer, not ideology.

Toward that end, Obama has said he'd work to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" within his first term. Yet, despite every logical reason why it should be done immediately, some are warning that we shouldn't get our hopes up. Yes, it's stupid. Yes, it's discriminatory. Yes, it's a waste of money that puts America's defense at risk no real reason and without benefit.

But it's not all that important.

Roll Call, via Queerty:

Key Democrats — even openly gay lawmakers — are quietly conceding to letting another two years go by before trying to overturn "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the controversial 1993 law banning openly gay people from serving in the military. Most fear that moving too quickly on such a divisive issue could backfire, and most would rather tread lightly, at least in the early months of President-elect Barack Obama's administration.


Democratic lawmakers regularly beg off questions about the contentious policy, arguing that other issues are far more important — such as winding down the war in Iraq or bolstering the economy. They also remember the political uproar when then-President Bill Clinton used the beginning of his presidency to try to overturn an outright ban on gays serving in the military. That effort tied his administration in knots in his first months in office, and Democrats fear a repeat performance.

But that "political uproar" was fifteen years ago. Why assume that everyone's stayed crazy? In July, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that three out of four people believed that gays should be able to serve openly in the military. When "don't ask, don't tell" was instituted in 1993, that number was 44%. The political landscape doesn't look anything like it did back then. In fact, even a majority of Republican voters disagree with the ban, with 64% saying it's a bad idea. I really don't see how caution is called for here; this seems safe as Nerf. "Don't ask, don't tell" is almost literally as unpopular as George W. Bush. Are they waiting for 100%?

After the loss of Proposition 8 in California, after choosing the awful and divisive Rick Warren to bless his first term, Obama needs to recognize that gays not only deserve a win, but need one. But the new Democratic-led congress seems committed to being just as lousy and useless as the last Democratic-led congress. Presidential leadership on the issue is going to be called for, since the reliably cowardly congressional leadership seems to want to brush the issue under the rug and hope everyone forgets about it.

There is no good reason to avoid dealing with the ban. It serves no legitimate purpose, it hurts our military readiness, it's expensive, it's discriminatory, it's backwards, and I could make a real good argument that it harms our culture by giving homophobia an institutional status. And, on top of everything else, getting rid of it is a gimme.

Yes, getting out of Iraq is extremely important. Yes, the economy should be a priority. During the election, Barack Obama said he could walk and chew gum at the same time, in response to John McCain's suggestion that the presidential campaign be suspended so they could deal with the market crash. I haven't seen any evidence that that's stopped being true. Barack Obama can still walk and chew gum; he can deal with these other issues while also dealing with this no-risk political task. In that big long list of difficult problems facing our nation, "don't ask, don't tell" isn't on it. It's a problem, but fixing it doesn't seem all that difficult.

Difficult is reading more stories like Stephen Benjamin's and knowing it puts our country at risk for no real reason.