A policy dust-up was in the news recently in the form of Congressional action to end the US military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” stance on gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces. Opponents of ending current discriminatory policies have been making much of the fact that this action came months in advance of a due date for a Defense Department study on this subject that has been widely taunted as both a deliberative and consultative process involving service members.
Whether this process was really meant to involve service members and their families in the decision-making process is more than a bit dubious. Even if it is meant more as a “listening process” preceding an almost certain policy shift, one could raise many questions about whether it is useful to base the fundamental rights of some on the opinions of others. As I write on this Memorial Day weekend, millions of veterans could legitimately ask when the Pentagon began this type of “polling”. Few of us with military service ever recall our opinions being sought on anything that might be called policy.
In my opinion, it would indeed be useful to frequently ask service members about pertinent military issues that have more direct bearing on operational issues and readiness. To do so might have provided quicker feedback on issues like issuance of body armor and vehicle protection against explosives. Consultation might even have a role in more mundane matters like whether the venerable .45 caliber sidearm should be restored to general issue over the lighter 9mm weapons that replaced it. In some of these matters service member opinions could help stiffen the spines of those who need to resist the highly politicized and pork-laden weapons procurement process.
But maybe in the case of whether or not gays and lesbians can serve openly in the military, we are asking the wrong questions in the wrong sequence. Critics complain that Congressional action was “political”, as if that were something new in that body or as if extension of rights is ever anything other than a political decision. This issue has undergone tremendous public opinion shifts in the last decade. If anything, our policymakers and military leaders have been woefully behind the pace of opinion change. The question has been repeatedly put to Americans and an overwhelming majority now supports change.
If we are honest, we would admit that President Truman would have created quite a mess for himself had he asked for the opinions of white military members on his planned desegregation of the US military. But then, as now, it might have been useful to ask service members meaningful questions about transition issues and easing the way of for implementations. Hopefully, those are the type of questions the Pentagon report will address, not eleventh-hour reservations on a new societal agreement on rights.