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The Pentagon
sings a different tune

The Pentagon
sings a different tune


Recent statements by retired general John Shalikashvili are a sure sign that attitudes inside the Pentagon are changing and that the military's exclusion of out lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans will soon end.

A recent New York Times op-ed by Gen. John Shalikashvili, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, quickly became the shot heard round the world in the debate over gays in the military. Shalikashvili, who was a staunch supporter of the ban in 1993, wrote that he now believes "that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces" and concludes that "we must welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job."

The general's remarks were not just a refreshing change of pace in the battle to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." They were a sure sign that attitudes inside the Pentagon are changing and that the military's exclusion of out lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans will soon end.

A review of the Pentagon's public statements over gays in the military underscores the fact that military commanders are tired of losing qualified, capable men and women because of the law. In the early days of "don't ask, don't tell," the Pentagon reliably pointed to support for the ban among high-level commanders, who felt the law was necessary to maintain "unit cohesion." Those commanders, the Pentagon brass said again and again, not only wanted but needed the ban on open service.

Today, the Pentagon is singing a very different tune. During the past two years especially, the Department of Defense has launched a far less aggressive defense of the law. They now insist they are simply carrying out a law made by Congress, as they are duty-bound to do. "The Department of Defense policy... implements a federal law enacted in 1993," Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, continues to remind the press. "The law would need to be changed to affect the department's policy."

In other words, Congress put the law into place, and Congress can get rid of it when it sees fit.

Krenke and other Pentagon spokespeople have become either unwilling or unable to point to a "necessity argument" from commanders in the field. The idea that "don't ask, don't tell" is a vital element of an effective military has lost any credibility at the Pentagon. In a department where public comments are crafted with the utmost care and wordsmiths examine and reexamine every linguistic nuance, the shift is not just significant, it is seismic.

In fact, there have been signs of a change of heart among military leaders for some time. When Democratic congresswoman Susan Davis, who represents a large military district in San Diego, became a cosponsor of legislation to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," she reached out to military leaders in the community to gauge their feelings on the issue.

"Over the course of the last year, I questioned high-ranking members of the armed forces, active duty military personnel, veterans...and other interested groups," she said in announcing her support for repeal. "These exchanges helped me to understand and ultimately dismiss the argument that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military would negatively impact military readiness, as some have stated. After consulting this diverse sounding board, it is clear to me that the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy is a political invention that does not serve the real needs of our armed forces and should be repealed."

It was evident from Davis's statement that she found little resistance--and likely much enthusiasm--among her military constituents for ending the ban. Other military leaders have spoken more directly about the shift in perspective among the armed forces. "It is clear that national attitudes toward this issue have evolved considerably in the last decade," retired lietenant general Daniel W. Christman, former superintendent at West Point and onetime assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the New YorkTimes. "This has been led by a new generation of service members who take a more relaxed and tolerant view toward homosexuality."

The change, however, is more than just generational, as General Shalikashvili's comments show. It is also based on the increased need for qualified recruits and the Pentagon's troubles meeting recruitment goals. And in large part it is to the credit of the growing number of gay and lesbian service members who are serving openly. In fact, it was a group of veterans who served openly during their time in the forces who were instrumental in changing Shalikashvili's views. Meeting them, he said, "showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers."

Indeed, the armed forces have changed, and continue to do so. That's good news as our country again begins to debate "don't ask, don't tell." The Pentagon's new tune is bound to be much more pleasant to gay Americans' ears.

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