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Opening Arguments

Gay patriots

I guess I understand where John McCain is coming from in his opposition to repealing the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy for gays in the military:

In response, the Arizona senator declared himself "disappointed" in the testimony. "At this moment of immense hardship for our armed services, we should not be seeking to overturn the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy," McCain said bluntly, before describing it as "imperfect but effective."

Like McCain, I served in the military in the Vietnam era, and I probably would have freaked out knowing that there were gays serving alongside me. But that was a different time, before gays started demanding their place at the table. There were no "gay issues" -- that just wasn't something mainstream America was talking about. These are different times, and young people, including those in the military, have different attitudes. DADT is a policy that has outlived its usefulness. Countries with serious military forces charged with serious missions have already  gotten beyond this -- I give you Israel, which began allowing gays to openly serve about the same time we instituted DADT.

McCain says the policy is "imperfect but effective," which I think considerably misstates the situation. What, exactly, is effective about DADT, except that it invites gays into the military with the understanding that they can be kicked out the minute they say they are gay? That's not just imperfect; it's insane. I speak with some authority. When the policy was instituted under President Clinton, we ran an editorial (which I wrote) saying something to the effect of, "What's the big deal? We make too much of revealing our personal lives anyway,  and the military is the one place where individuality is supposed to be submerged into the group's mission." (Our archiving technology doesn't allow a link, but it was July 19, 1993, if you want to look it up.) In retrospect, that editorial was flawed, or at least misguided. Such a policy asks people who want to serve their country to deny who they are. Far better just to pick one path or the other and defend it -- gays can serve, or they won't be accepted.

The most legitimate argument by McCain and other critics is that this is a complicated task to ask of our armed services at this "moment of extreme hardship." We're in the middle of two wars and constantly worried about terrorism, and requiring our military members to help push along our social engineering ideals might be putting a little too much on their plates. But these aren't ordinary wars -- they might go on for the rest of our lifetimes; they shouldn't be used to put off a process we think is right. And we are just  talking about a start. It's not like the president is going to push a button, and DADT will end tomorrow:

The defense chief said he was appointing a group to be led by Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson and Army Gen. Carter Ham to develop a plan for safely incorporating openly gay military personnel into the ranks of the nation's armed forces.

The panel will deliver findings by the end of 2010.

Mr. Gates said the Pentagon would also conduct a 45-day review of its procedures for enforcing the "don't ask, don't tell" restrictions with an eye towards implementing them in what he described as a "fairer manner."

So, basically, they'll study the issue for a year and make recommendations. In the meantime, they'll "slow down" implementing the policy so that fewer gays will be outed and kicked out. Among other things, the military will stop cashiering soldiers who are outed by third parties. Don't ask, don't tell and, especially, don't snitch.

We've been here before with such gradual change. President Truman ordered the integration of the armed forces in 1948 (by executive order, bypassing Congress), but it was three years later, in the middle of the Korean War, when the military fully and formally came on board. Integration happened when our white forces suffered staggering losses and commanders started quietly accepting black replacements. Say, those fellas are willing to fight and bleed and die with us -- maybe they ain't so bad after all.

I want my armed forces staffed by people who love this country and take the mission of defending it seriously -- true patriots. There is no draft, so I take it for granted that most of those who volunteer are willing to make great sacrifices to serve the country. Given what gays know they might face in the military, if they're willing to serve and sacrifice anyway, how patriotic must they be, and how smart is it to refuse their offer?

Again, I think Israel offers a good example. That tiny nation is surrounded by hostile forces that want to end its existence -- it can't afford to fool around with political correctness or social experiments. Every citizen of Israel is in a sense a member of the military. If the "war on terror" goes the way some think it will, we will become more like Israel. Each of us will be a potential victim. Without any "front lines" in the war, any of us might be called on at some point to defend the country. If some want to go the extra step and actually put on the uniform, bless them.

Obviously, this argument isn't over, and Congress will resist enough so that we ought to have a good debate on the issue. As a starter, here's a conservative who argues that gays are making headway on the issue because opponents are inarticulate and on the defensive and gays know it. But then he doesn't seem to offer any real argument himself except that allowing gays to openly serve will somehow infringe on the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion of "religious believers and cultural traditionalists." I'd like to see that argument developed. To me, a policy can generally be defended if it advances someone else's freedom without diminishing mine -- that seems a pretty good rule of thumb of reciprocity in a constitutional democracy, in fact. I'm trying, but I can't see how gays serving in the military harms me. (And check out the robust discussion in the comments.)