By Charles Sennott
BOSTON -- In many corners of the world, the policy on gays in the military could be labeled this way: "Don't Ask, Don't Care."
In the military establishments of more than 30 countries, including U.S. allies such as Israel, Canada and the United Kingdom, gays and lesbians are allowed to openly serve in their country's military.
It's just not a big issue out there in much of the Western world.
But here in the U.S., the long-simmering debate over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has heated up after President Barack Obama vowed to repeal it during his State of the Union Address last week.
On Tuesday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, in a powerful and emotional statement, denounced the policy before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Now the stage is set for a year-long debate over what is best for the U.S. military and the country it serves. And it seems the military brass is on the retreat on a policy that needs to be changed because, as Mullen put it, "It is the right thing to do."
Obama could now seek to change the law through legislation or repeal the policy through an executive order.
Advocates for repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" say it is high time for gays to serve their country proudly and openly, and they claim there is no evidence that such a change would be detrimental to the military. These advocates for changing the 1993 policy add that the U.S. military needs the tens of thousands of gays and lesbians who currently serve and the tens of thousands more who would enlist if they were allowed to do so.
Supporters of the existing policy say it has worked well and that now, while the country is fighting two active wars, is not the time to take on a substantive change in policy that could hurt the military's "preparedness and effectiveness," as they like to say in the Pentagon. They fear such a change could undercut recruitment in an all-volunteer army that is already overstretched.
The deadlocked debate in the U.S. could benefit from lessons about how allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly has worked with many of our allies.
According to military analysts and experts who have studied the issue in Israel, the U.K. and elsewhere, the policy has had little impact on the effectiveness of the military.
There are about 30 countries in the world, including nearly all of the NATO members, as well as South Africa, Brazil and the Philippines, that allow gay and lesbian servicemen and women in the military, according to Aaron Belkin, a political science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
"In just about all of these countries there is research and anecdotal evidence that illustrates there is no problem, no decrease in cohesion among units, nor a diminishing effectiveness of the troops," said Belkin, an expert in the area of civil-military relations whose research has been published in the military publications "International Security" and "Armed Forces and Society."
In 2000, Belkin co-authored an exhaustive 44-page study on Canada, which, after a series of lawsuits in 1991, changed its policies to allow gays to openly serve in the military. Belkin's study, which at the time was regarded as the most comprehensive academic study of homosexuality in a foreign military ever completed, concluded that the change in policy had "not led to any change in military performance, unit cohesion, or discipline."
The U.S. military walks a fine line on this issue, not outright banning gays in the military, but insisting that their sexual orientation must not be openly discussed. Under the 1993 policy adopted by President Bill Clinton, service members who remain closeted are allowed to serve, and investigation into a member's sexuality without suspicion is prohibited. It's a private matter, in other words. But any gay or lesbian in the military who refuses to stay silent, seeks to publicly proclaim their orientation or wants to get married, even in states where gay marriage is legal, risks being discharged.
Russia is one of the very few other countries in the world with a blurred line. In Russia, the policy holds that "well-adjusted homosexuals" are permitted to serve in a "normal capacity." But those alleged to have "sexual identity problems" are to be drafted only during wartime.
Most countries in the world, particularly in the Muslim world and in religiously conservative countries in Africa, Asia and most of Latin America, clearly prohibit gays from serving in the military. There are some 80 countries in the world that still see homosexuality as a crime and a handful that still see it as a crime punishable by death.
Gen. Robert Magnus, who served as assistant commandant of the Marine Corps until his retirement in 2008, was among the hundreds of retired officers who signed a letter to Obama from the Center for Military Readiness last year warning against a repeal of the policy.
"We sent the letter to the commander in chief because with this policy we have maintained good order and discipline and we see no grounds to change the law," said Magnus.
Magnus said that while he respects other countries, such as Israel and the U.K., that have allowed gays to openly serve, he does not believe their example informs what is best for the U.S.
In Israel, he pointed out, there is universal conscription for all healthy men and women. The Israeli military, which adopted its openly gay policy in the early 1990s, is a place where men and women often meet their future spouses and where dating is a common occurrence. It's part of the military culture. So creating equality for gays could be seen as making sense in that culture, Magnus said.
In the U.S. military, there is no tolerance for either heterosexual or homosexual relationships. There's a policy against any sexual relations in the service. It's not part of the culture, he said.
Similarly, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, who has studied the British military system and who was part of the impact study of the U.S. military prior to the 1993 "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, said, "I love the Brits, but they are very different from the U.S. military. They have a different culture."
Maginnis said that the British army is much smaller at only 100,000 troops compared to the U.S. military, which has an active service of 1.5 million and a reserve force of some 170,000.
"The Brits don't have the same force and the comparison just doesn't work," he said.
"You have to be globally aware. There are some practices in other parts of the world which are better than the U.S. military. And then you have to ask, if we did that would it work within our system?" asked Maginnis.
"When I look around the world, I'd say America is different," said Maginnis.
So in the end is "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" another example of American "exceptionalism," that, as Maginnis would see it, shows the United States and its armed forces have a higher purpose, a different role in the world?
Or is it one more example of how we contradict our highest ideals of equality and justice for all in a way that is increasingly evident to so many of our allies?
The case of Lt. Daniel Choi, an openly gay Iraq war veteran who had to give up his military career last year as a much-needed Arabic language expert after he publicly stated his sexual orientation, defines the debate on a personal level.
"For me it is not about politics. This is my life and my platoon and my job," he said yesterday, speaking on CNN.
"We all agree on one thing. We want our military to be strong and to succeed. By kicking out valuable members of the force, I don't see how we achieve that ... . For me it is simple, people all around the world are asking how come America isn't ready to do this?" Read more GlobalPost