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.