When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Michael Mullen testify today on the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, many will warn of certain disaster. Some will question whether military culture is prepared for open homosexuality in the ranks. Others will muse whether such social meddling threatens the war and the all-volunteer Army itself.
But assuming President Obama is successful in leading the charge for a policy change, the only real question is what will it look like from a solder's perspective. Contrary to naysayers, the United States military is institutionally prepared today - at this very moment - for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The Department of Defense has long established a robust Military Equal Opportunity program, which quite effectively protects service members from discrimination based on gender, race, religion or national origin.
MEO personnel are well trained to manage third-party conflicts and sexual harassment claims. With the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the system can easily incorporate harassment claims by homosexual troops. The regulations need not even be rewritten; gays and lesbians will immediately be protected under sexual harassment and personal harassment guidelines. On a practical level, however, a Bolshevik policy implementation should be avoided. The brass at Division are far removed from the steely-eyed soldiers humping it in full "battle rattle" in oppressive temperatures. Defense Department leadership will need to tread lightly so as not to inflame passions on a volatile issue, while at the same time fostering a culture of tolerance.
The military has proven quite effective at this in recent years, providing a relatively supportive, liberal environment for Muslim troops serving in what is effectively a war against militant Islam. The secret is to allow for a malleable policy implementation in the hands of experienced noncommissioned officers. A key to the military's managerial success is strict adherence to conflict resolution at the lowest level. This level might be a fire team leader, a squad leader, or a platoon sergeant. "Unit cohesion" will be a buzzword in the weeks to come, and NCOs are responsible for maintaining that cohesion. It's in every sergeant's best interest both professionally and as a matter of survival to keep his or her soldiers unified. Service members are annually given mandatory briefings on such matters as sexual harassment, suicide prevention, post-traumatic stress disorder, and religious discrimination.
There is little doubt that sexual tolerance will be added to the PowerPoint roster. On the threshold of the policy's repeal, qualified Equal Opportunity personnel will undoubtedly brief soldiers on a unit level, and soldiers will be given formal counseling statements to be signed stating that they understand the policy changes, and understand the consequences for violating the rights of homosexuals. But open homosexuality in the ranks will not come without a certain degree of discomfort in a culture where homophobic remarks are not in short supply. Once the repeal is official, there will be great temptation on both sides of the issue to "make headlines." Nefarious parties will be interested in seeing the issue succeed or fail as a political matter. Commanders must stamp out soldiers who bypass the chain of command and sidestep MEO - soldiers who seek the spotlight of national media attention. In instances of overt harassment, it is crucial that offending soldiers are disciplined swiftly, and in writing, so as to prevent promotions down the line. In minor cases, however, in addition to discipline where it is warranted, it is also important that offended soldiers maintain a certain stiff upper lip. In the civilian world, it is sometimes hard to grasp the abrasiveness of military culture.
In the training environments of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, specifically, personal invectives and corporal punishment are hurled like meteors from above. Combat is stressful. Combat zones are isolating. Discomfort is a way of life. In day-to-day military life, piercing insults among equals are very often to be taken with a thick skin. As homosexuality is normalized, it takes little imagination to see that brought into the mix. Here, again, experienced NCOs will need to council effectively and determine what constitutes harassment and what is intended merely as emotional and familial roughhousing. If every soldier whose feelings were hurt filed an EO complaint or demanded an Article 15 punishment, the military would grind to a halt. In the Army, everyone's feelings are hurt. To quote Tom Hanks, "There's no crying in baseball!" The same applies in uniform.
At the same time, NCOs improperly enforcing the new policy must be disciplined severely. A lawful order from the president is a lawful order from the president. Senior NCOs and officers must make clear that the policy is carved in stone. From a squad leader's perspective, it will be a very delicate tightrope to walk. If there is hope, it comes from recent polls taken of service members, where the trend is toward acceptance of homosexuals serving openly. Younger enlistees, raised in a more tolerant culture, primarily drive this trend. A forceful point in the coming debate will be charges of "social engineering" in a time of war. This concern is twinned with the importance of cohesion. The fear, according to some, is that such a major policy change will be undermine a unit that should otherwise be single-minded in its focus on combat. But a well-trained, well-disciplined combat unit will not be distracted by minor policy changes.
After all, Don't Ask, Don't Tell does not forbid homosexuals from serving. It demands only that they serve in silence. Close-knit infantry units already eat together, sleep together, shower together, share open restroom facilities, and fight, bleed, and die together. A good soldier who admits that he or she is gay might expect a ribbing, but it's hard to see a unit collapsing over such news. Indeed, it's hard to see a unit surprised at such news. Units so tight as the infantry almost certainly already have a good idea if someone is a homosexual. Privacy is a nonexistent part of that culture. But even in less cloistered support battalions, if two gay soldiers are discovered to be sexually active, again, there is already a policy in place to handle such an infraction. General Order Number One forbids sexual relationships of any kind in a combat zone, stating, "Sexual relations in a deployed environment have a degrading effect on unit cohesion, morale, good order and discipline, and jeopardizes unit readiness as well as mission accomplishment. Therefore, sexual relations and intimate behavior between individuals not married to each other are prohibited." Similarly, sexual relations are also forbidden in stateside military barracks.
Unmarried soldiers in want of intimate relations are to find a friend's house, or get a hotel room. This applies to heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. No new policy needs to be written. No exceptions need to be made. Once again, the military proves itself institutionally prepared for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. If the policy is to be repealed over the course of several years, as is expected, service members can, however, expect minor changes in infrastructure. As a matter of courtesy and comfort to everyone involved, open-bay showers might well become a thing of the past. Already, the military has shifted in this direction. Open showers and toilets are now rarely to be found, except for training environments and World War II barracks, which are primarily used as temporary housing for mobilizing units. Dividers and shower curtains are a very small expense to avert a major wedge issue. But even then, any problems resulting from homosexuals serving openly can be handled discreetly at the squad level. A soldier in want of additional privacy need only ask his or her supervisor to shower separately.
A good NCO, in the interests of both unit cohesion and simple human dignity, can make such arrangements with ease. If all else fails, the United States need only look to her allied nations for guidance on policy. Homosexuality is not without western military precedent. Of the Coalition of the Willing that invaded Iraq in 2003, only the United States forbade homosexuals from serving without fear. Of the NATO International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan, the United States joined a small minority of nations banning gays, including Jordan, Turkey, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, staunch allies such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and Poland continue to fight with no regard to sexual preference.
The Israeli Defense Forces, considered by many to be among the most elite fighting forces in the world, have allowed homosexuals to openly serve since 1993. Ultimately, Don't Ask, Don't Tell will be repealed and homosexuals will serve openly in the armed forces. If given the order tomorrow, the military will be ready. To argue otherwise is to argue that they are insufficiently professional to carry out the orders of the President. In a "lead, follow, or get out of the way" culture, it's up to the civilians, now. Follow, or get out of the way.
D.B. Grady is a former U.S. Army paratrooper and veteran of Afghanistan. He is the author of Red Planet Noir, and can be found at http://www.dbgrady.com