Military Bloggers and Don't Ask, Don't Tell

May was a big month for Don't Ask, Don't Tell. On May 27th, the House voted to approve an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, effectively producing a legislative repeal of the long-standing ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the armed services.  On the same day, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed a similar measure. While Marc Ambinder notes that "the policy won't change until certain thresholds are crossed," the vote marks the beginning of the end for the contentious policy.  

While pundits are split as to whether the Obama administration is pursuing the right path towards an effective implementation the new policy, most agree that the time to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell was at hand. To some extent, the move towards repeal was predicted  -- and blessed - by a handful of highly influential military bloggers who, on May 12th, released a statement calling for the Don't Ask, Don't Tell's repeal. The letter includes the signatures of bloggers from the U.S. Naval Institute Blog, Black Five, The Military Observer, and the Warrior Legacy Foundation, and declared that, with repeal, "very little will actually change."

The significance of milboggers' joint statement has been somewhat underappreciated. The military blogosphere is highly engaged with the armed services and has actively commented on military affairs for years, covering topics ranging from the Fort Hood shootings to the Hurt Locker.  I spoke to Jim Hanson, who blogs under the handle "Uncle Jimbo" at Black Five. Hanson recently appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show to discuss the joint statement by milboggers and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

What has been your reaction and the reaction of the milblogger community to last week's legislative flurry surrounding Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

While many of us believe that it's about time, I think there's been kind of mixed feelings as to why it had to happen now. The reason we wrote the letter we did was not to force a repeal, but to encourage Congress to take a look at how the law could be practically implemented. The military had been asking for a plan for the implementation of repeal for some time, looking to determine how the Don't Ask, Don't Tell could be efficiently and effectively incorporated into existing operations. This was supposed to precede an actual call for repeal.

Congress kind of short-circuited that for political reasons. They wanted to get on the record as having done something before the November elections. There's a little disappointment that the actual vote for repeal was fast-tracked before a plan was drawn up. Admiral [Mike] Mullen and Secretary of Defense Gates had asked for Congress to wait before a survey was finished and before we could speak to as many troops as possible with a plan on how to implement this repeal. And even though there's a plan in place, in terms of the 60 day Pentagon review, it sort of sends a message to the troops that there opinion wasn't needed. That was the mistake.

I'm not intimately familiar with the milblogger community. How many are ex-military? How would you describe the community politically? Ben Smith at Politico wrote with regards to your DADT letter that the community of "mil-bloggers" is "often hawkish, critical of White House and military leadership, devoted to both the First and Second Amendments -- isn't easy to define politically, but has proven an increasingly powerful voice from the ranks." Would you say this is an accurate description?

I think the milblogger community is a good mix (Black Five has a few in the reserves and vets) of active and not active. It's made up of military families too, which few people realize; husbands, daughters, sons, wives in the military. Politically, there's no lockstep, but I'd say its a step right of center (more hawkish than straight conservative). We believe in a strong foreign policy, and in some places we've had differences with the Obama administration over issues of a more vigorous foreign policy and a strong national security posture. The military blogs are not political; most are supportive of a strong military, but more focused on how troops are used as part of a foreign policy. We are difficult to pin down politically...there's an array of political opinion discussed and expressed. We believe that we can achieve peace through strength, and we've been critical of this we don't think weakness in foreign policy will get you the peace some think it might.

So where are military bloggers situated in the conversation about Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and military policy more broadly?

The nice thing is that military is very forward thinking in realizing that the milblogs are another media outlet. Early on, combat leaders started holding blog roundtables; they started off by asking brigade combat team leaders to have conference calls and ask questions. This really picked up in 2007, around the time of the surge. The first commanders came out of the blogger roundtables and were amazed at getting important, pertinent, informed questions, especially from those who had experience in the armed service.

Blogger loggers were happy to have strong access. They had access to information that the media may not have been able to cover. They became outlets more sympathetic to soldiers on the ground. Now, there are a lot of ears on the community at the Pentagon, combat command, and around the world as an entirely different narrative than the mainstream media narrative.

How do you mean?

For a long time it was just "this was the latest bombing" or there would be a human interest story, but in reality there was very little coverage of how the war was being conducted and very little voice to the actual warfighters. It was very obvious in the run-up to the surge of 2007 when media outlets and policy makers were saying "cut and run." We opposed that because the troops on the ground believe that if they were reinforced there was an opportunity for victory. It turns out they were right.

How did this group of military bloggers arrive at this conclusion about Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

The first piece I wrote about it was about 5 years ago. It was picked up by Andrew Sullivan, I believe, and every time Don't Ask, Don't Tell hits the news, we generally we weigh in. Black Five, Matt and I and UberPig support repeal, and Froggy is adamantly opposed. We've been having discussion since the blogs came up. Normally, people assumed that we would be monolithically against it, but it was probably split 60-40 in favor of repeal. There was even a group led by CJ Grisham who wrote a letter in response to the one we published opposing repeal. But the dialogue is good, because most of us agree that it's a generational thing now. Because of the ubiquity of gay people in our society, the young troops don't care, its very much "don't ask, don't care." This will be a non-issue once the policy goes into place. The young troops say, "Who cares? If you didn't notice, there are people shooting at us. We've got other concerns."

You wrote a few years back: "If I am lying by the road bleeding, I don't care if the medic coming to save me is gay. I just hope he is one of those buff gay guys who are always in the gym so he can throw me over his shoulder and get me out of there." How has your time of service influenced you views on DADT? Did you know any of those big buff guys?

I can think of two guys when I was on a Special Forces team who were on other teams who were gay. And it was well known, and it was a situation where they could carry their weight...they were competent professionals. We didn't care who they slept with, as long as they could haul hundred pound rucksacks. Competence and professionalism trump what you do in your off time. That's how most people think. I don't care who they're humping on leave as long as they can hump a hundred pound rucksack.
Do any of your fellow milbloggers have similar anecdotes?

We have a backchannel where we all communicate about a story, that's where I announced we were starting this letter. Andrew Lubin [of Military Observer] said "if we're going to have women on submarines and gays in the military, then we should have the gay dudes on subs with the women so nobody gets pregnant."

That's an interesting way of looking at it. Sort of a nice contrast to the current abstract dialogue among policy makers.

Well obviously, there are going to be major issues in implementing the repeal. Do gay dudes room with straight dudes? Do gay couples get on-base housing? There are tons of complex issues to overcome, but as long as we stop freaking out about it, it will make the process significantly easier. There will of course be people who are extremely displeased, and this is why we wanted Congress to wait and let military leaders figure out how it's implemented. As long as the policy is implemented as the service chiefs on the ground see fit, it should be no problem. While its fine to bless repeal at the presidential level or the congressional level, it's different on the ground level. There are military has regulations that have to be followed...seriously! If you don't follow military regs, you can go to jail. And Congress needs to listen to the military on the actual implementation process to make sure that it meets those pre-existing regulations. Follow the advice from the chief and let them do it and it will be OK.

Speaking from your experience in a combat unit, what would a DADT repeal look like in the context of an active unit in the battlefield? As you said on The Rachel Maddow Show: "I think the troops at the lower levels are ready.  We just wanted to make sure that the policy is implemented in a way that doesn't affect us while we are in a shooting war."

In all honestly, I think the policy will be less of a problem in the combat zone than in garrisons. In combat zones, you know, people are busy, and they have enough on their minds like staying alive. As long as everyone is pulling his or her weight as an important piece of the combat puzzle, that's what matters. Once you get back to the garrison, the issues I mentioned earlier -- particularly with regards to housing -- will be more extensive. What happens with housing for couples? What happens at the formal ball when soldiers bring their boyfriends? At that point, it will be time for soldiers to critically examine the issue. The concern will be bigger in the garrison during peacetime.

You mentioned that some didn't agree with the idea of having gays serve openly in the military, but viewed it as "inevitable." Can you elaborate on this?

There was a point of time when it was a reasonable adaptation to cultural norms. Since that point, like I said, the younger troops are really not that interested, or more "don't ask, don't care."  That's not everybody, but I think it's enough. The only justification for having a discriminatory policy was that it was going to affect troop morale or unit cohesion. Once the center of gravity was past that point, having a discriminatory policy that excludes people from military service is just wrong. This is America!

Secretary Gates made a statement recently regarding the Pentagon review of instituting the structural changes of the repeal. "While it appears likely that Congress will eventually change the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' law, we do not expect the legislation that would do this to be presented to the President for months -- perhaps not until the end of the year. While this process plays out over time, nothing will change in terms of our current policies and practices. Please, let us know how to do this right." Do you think there's still an issue with the actual formulation and enforcement of an effective policy?

Not especially, but did Congress leave a kind of a caveat. The President, the Secretary of Defense, and Admiral Mullen have to certify that it's the right thing to do and that it's time to do it before the legislation goes into effect, but I doubt that the Pentagon review will derail repeal at all. The repeal bill is written so that if any of the three don't certify it, it won't happen. It's still a bad idea to not let the troops to be heard first; it was pure political pandering by Congress to their base. Using the military as a political tool, I'm very opposed to that, it's poor form. If they wait for the study to come back, and the Secretary of Defense and Mullen say "we have a plan and here's how its going to be implemented" that's the right first step. Saying that there's no particular way of dealing with these issues, that's fine. As long as it's not immediately changed with no training and no discussions, things will be fine. There should be sensitivity to those folks who think it's a bad idea.

Speaking of legislative snafus, Spencer Ackerman recently made the argument that an unwanted $485 Million F-35 fighter engine could hold up the Defense Authorization bill and potentially impede the passage of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Any thoughts?

Actually, I think this was more of a sense of trying to get Don't Ask, Don't Tell into the Defense Authorization Bill where it wouldn't be held up. The thing about the Defense Authorization bill is that it's going to pass. It's very difficult politically to stand up and say, "No, I will not fund the troops." It's sort of an "I dare you to veto this, I dare you to stand up to this." DADT is a political hot potato and having it in the bill makes it difficult to stand up to.

Getting back to your comrades in blog, what's going to be the role of the milblogger community in the Don't Ask, Don't Tell debate in the next few years?

Now that the repeal has been decided on, we'll be soliciting info from the troops and their families on the issues that. What are the issues, what are the potential problems, and how do we address them? The military housing for gay couples will be the biggest issue since the federal government doesn't recognize gay marriage, and marriage is the standard by which couples get housing. What if you have gay guys who go to different bases and say they want housing if they're marriage is legal in one state and its not legal in another The commandant of the Marine Corp has said that "a soldier doesn't have to have the gay roommate if he doesn't want to." Chances are that will be addressed in some type of opt-out program for those who have a problem. There are probably enough people in the unit who simply don't care.

We'll try to facilitate the conversation and put out opinions to make the implementation of these policies as painless as possible.

Honestly, I think its good that there now exists a way for the families of the military to get an alternative view, to get counterprogramming to the regular media narrative. That's what we started...we started because what we saw on the news wasn't accurate. The people at home and the folks in theatre weren't hearing anything but the horror. It's not just car bombs, you know. There are other good things going on the ground, things people should be proud of. We provide an alternative voice to make sure that it's not just a negative portrayal of our efforts as. I think we're definitely influenced the major media outlets. We're an ombudsman, and I would hope that we've shaped that role. We are reporting on original things, and we are an adjunct to the major media. Now there's actual reporting on these issues and not just preaching to the choir or agenda journalism. Overall, the editorial voice of the major media outlets has been looking for the latest car bombing, not the latest school that was opened. Lets highlight those along with the difficulties.

I went to a journalism fellowship with 30 mainstream journalists at the University of Maryland Knight Center; they bring you in for about a week, they bring in undersecretaries of state, military officers, procurement people, and we get a chance to discuss how the media influences the stories. What struck me was that out of the 30 mainstream media military beat reporters, only one freelance photographer and myself had ever served. There's something to be said for actually having some expertise rather than being an impartial observer, and knowing deeply what topics are being discussed. It's a difference of opinion and difference of perspective, but the difference in depth of knowledge is most significant.