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Pentagon airs criticism of ‘don’t ask’

Journal article backs gay troops; May signal brass open to debate

By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / September 30, 2009

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WASHINGTON - An article in the Pentagon’s top scholarly journal calls in unambiguous terms for lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the armed forces, arguing that the military is essentially forcing thousands of gay men and women to lead dishonest lives in an organization that emphasizes integrity as a fundamental tenet.

The article in the upcoming issue of Joint Force Quarterly, which is published for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was written by an Air Force colonel who studied the issue for months while a student at the National Defense University in Washington and who concludes that having openly gay troops in the ranks will not hurt combat readiness.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of Pentagon leaders, but their appearance in a publication billed as the Joint Chiefs’ “flagship’’ security studies journal signals that the top brass now welcomes a debate in the military over repealing the 1993 law that requires gays to hide their sexual orientation, according to several longtime observers of the charged debate over gays in the military.

While decisions on which articles to publish are made by the journal’s editorial board, located at the defense university, a senior military official said yesterday that the office of Admiral Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman who is the nation’s top military officer, reviewed the article before it was published.

“After a careful examination, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that unit cohesion will be negatively affected if homosexuals serve openly,’’ writes Colonel Om Prakash, who is now working in the office of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. “Based on this research, it is not time for the administration to reexamine the issue; rather it is time for the administration to examine how to implement the repeal of the ban.’’

The article, an advance copy of which was provided to the Globe, is likely to increase pressure on President Obama to fulfill his campaign pledge to work with Congress to overturn the 1993 law commonly referred to as “don’t ask, don’t tell.’’

The law stipulates that gays in the military must keep their sexual orientation secret. In the 16 years it has been in effect, more than 12,500 troops have been discharged because their sexual orientation was revealed, either by themselves or others.

But Obama has tread very carefully since taking office, declining to provide a timeline on when the White House will actively lobby Congress and repeatedly saying that he will consult his military advisers before taking any action. The White House did not respond yesterday to requests for comment. Gates’s office reiterated that until Congress changes the law, the Pentagon will follow it.

Obama’s reticence is based in part on the lessons of former president Bill Clinton, who sought to allow gays to serve openly early in his administration but was forced to agree to the 1993 compromise after a fierce backlash in Congress and the military.

Representative Patrick Murphy, a Pennsylvania Democrat and Iraq war veteran, is lobbying for a hearing - possibly later this year or early next year - on legislation that he has proposed that would repeal the ban. The bill has 176 cosponsors; there is no similar legislation pending in the Senate.

Arguing that the law “has been costly both in personnel and treasure’’ - the cost of discharging service members and recruiting replacements, including those with language or other specialized skills - Prakash lays out a case in his article for why he believes the time has come for repeal.

While he acknowledges that allowing gays to serve openly would cause some disruptions in the ranks - including harassment and even violence - he asserts that the disruptions would be manageable and that the military would quickly accept the change. Moreover, he argues that a more equitable policy would actually strengthen unit cohesion.

“No doubt there will be cases where units will become dysfunctional, just as there are today among heterosexual leaders,’’ Prakash writes. “Intervention will be required; such units must be dealt with just as they are today - in a prompt and constructive fashion.’’

Ensuring a smooth transition will require education and leadership, he believes, but the record suggests that there will be no major fallout.

Prakash cites the examples of other militaries - including in Australia, Israel, the United Kingdom, and Canada - that allow gays to serve openly. “There was no mass exodus of heterosexuals, and there was no mass ‘coming out’ of homosexuals,’’ he said.

Prakash also points to recent examples of gay soldiers - including battlefield leaders such as a Marine Corps captain - whose sexual orientation has been known by others in their units, to no discernible effect.

But the crux of Prakash’s argument is that the military is now forcing thousands of soldiers to live a lie, directly undercutting the very fabric of their profession.

“The law also forces unusual personal compromises wholly inconsistent with a core military value - integrity,’’ he writes. “Several homosexuals interviewed were in tears as they described the enormous personal compromise in integrity they had been making, and the pain felt in serving in an organization they wholly believed in, yet that did not accept them.’’

He continues: “In an attempt to allow homosexual service members to serve quietly, a law was created that forces a compromise in integrity, conflicts with the American creed of ‘equality for all,’ places commanders in difficult moral dilemmas, and is ultimately more damaging to the unit cohesion its stated purpose is to preserve.’’

The article is likely to be applauded by gay rights groups that have been lobbying the Obama administration to take action to overturn the ban. But it is also likely to embolden supporters of the current law such as Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a Washington think tank.

She believes that allowing gays to serve openly in all ranks and units - as the Murphy bill stipulates - would severely damage unit cohesion. “It is tantamount to saying that men should share the same living spaces with women,’’ she said. “Society may have changed but the need for good order and discipline has not changed.’’

Donnelly also contends that the experiences of foreign militaries should not be a guide for the US armed forces, saying that some of them have conscript armies and do not allow gays to serve in elite combat units.

“These are not role models for the United States,’’ she said. “Congress is being asked to impose a risky military social experiment that is duplicated nowhere in the world.’’

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.