September 1, 2010  

An elephant named Morality

The unspoken argument over ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

On May 26, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed an amendment to the 2011 defense appropriations bill to repeal Section 654, Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which bans homosexual men and women from serving in the U.S. armed forces. Two days later, by a vote of 234-194, the House of Representatives passed its version of the bill, bringing the repeal of the 17-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy a step closer to fruition.

That same week, a historic meeting between two of the outspoken voices on both sides of the issue of gays in the military met on stage in Montgomery, Ala. In front of more than 500 military students at Air Command and Staff College, Aaron Belkin from The Palm Center and Elaine Donnelly from the Center of Military Readiness made their cases against DADT.

Both agree that DADT is and has been bad policy from its inception in 1993. Where Belkin advocates a repeal of the gay ban, Donnelly insists that the Defense Department adhere to the tenets of the current law and enforce Congress’ mandate for homosexuals’ ineligibility to serve. Each authored chapters in “Attitudes Aren’t Free: Thinking Deeply About Diversity in The U.S. Armed Forces,” an Air University publication released earlier this year. The book includes a Palm Center report examining the costs and benefits of overturning the ban, and, from the Center for Military Readiness, a list of more than 1,160 flag and general officers opposed to gays in the military. Additionally, Belkin and colleagues outline a case for the commander in chief to use the current “stop loss” authority to overturn DADT, while Donnelly outlined the case for how such a repeal would foster a shock to the existing military culture that could degrade military readiness.

Congress has given the military until Dec. 1 to assess the impacts of repealing DADT. If repealed, it also seems likely that Congress will leave it up to the military to determine the timing and process by which changes would eventually be implemented. How military members will react to a potential policy change remains to be seen. Many experts look to other Western militaries that have lifted bans on homosexuals from openly serving. The consensus from these countries, which include the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Israel, is that the biggest story has been no story at all. However, when probing a bit deeper into discussions with foreign military experts who have a significant knowledge of the U.S. military, they qualify their comments in a similar fashion: “It wasn’t a problem for our country once the policy decision was made, but it may be for yours.” When asked why, the answer is almost always the same: “For you, it seems to be a question of morality.”


There’s an elephant in every room these days when the issue of gays in the military comes up, and most people on both sides of the argument are reticent to acknowledge it. Those opposed to integrating gays in the military cite a variety of reasons for their opposition: military readiness, unit cohesion, logistics, medical issues, future costs, etc. But the primary reason, which no one wants to discuss, is that many believe it to be immoral. The argument is rather straightforward:

• Acts of sexual misconduct are immoral.

• Sexual misconduct is a matter of choice.

• Those who chose to commit immoral acts are themselves immoral.

• Immoral individuals aren’t fit for military service.

Everyone can agree that immoral individuals should not be allowed to serve. There’s never any discussion about the rights of thieves, murderers, rapists or pedophiles to serve in the armed forces. But when it comes to determining the morality of homosexuality, conversations become far more guarded and delicate. The difficult disagreement emerges in determining what qualifies as moral sexual conduct and what doesn’t. It is entirely consistent for those who believe homosexuality is immoral to advocate for the exclusion of gay men and women from serving in the armed forces. The most prominent example occurred March 12, 2007, when then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace attempted to define the parameters of impermissible sexual conduct in his comments to the Chicago Tribune regarding gays in the military. He said, “My upbringing is such that I believe that there are certain things, certain types of conduct, that are immoral. … I believe that military members who sleep with other military members’ wives are immoral in their conduct. … I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral, and that we should not condone immoral acts. … I do not believe that the armed forces are well served by saying through our policies that it’s OK to be immoral in any way, not just with regards to homosexual acts. … So from that standpoint, saying that gays should serve openly in the military to me says that we, by policy, would be condoning what I believe is immoral activity.”

His comments ignited a firestorm of criticism, and three months later, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that he would advise the president not to renominate Pace for a second term. Pace stepped down as chairman Oct. 1, 2007.

The severe reaction to Pace’s comments was instructive to all who watched closely: Keep your personal views to yourself. Gates emphasized this point in commenting on Pace’s remarks several days later: “I think personal opinion really doesn’t have a place here. What’s important is that we have a law, a statute that governs ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ That’s the policy of this department, and it’s my responsibility to execute that policy as effectively as we can. As long as the law is what it is, that’s what we’ll do.”

Belkin commented to the audience at Maxwell Air Force Base in May: “I give General Pace a lot of credit for having the courage to publicly state what everyone knows.” That perspective is shared by many military officers. And given the impact to Pace’s career, nearly everyone has taken notice of bringing up “the ‘M’ word” when discussing gays serving opening in the military.

For most people, determination of moral conduct comes from two sources: the law and religious doctrine. When it comes to the law, there is little disagreement. The Uniform Code of Military Justice is the rule book by which the military operates. If the UCMJ permits such conduct, it will be permitted — and if it doesn’t, it won’t. Ethical practice is defined purely by following and enforcing the rule of law, regardless of one’s personal feelings. However, when it comes to religion as a basis for moral judgment, the situation becomes a bit more challenging. With a military that defines itself as 85 percent Christian, the governing “religious law” is far more contentious and not as easily changed as the will of Congress. Whereas the legal basis of morality can be changed with the stroke of a pen, the religious basis of morality is often regarded as truth to believers and not subject to debate. The First Amendment further complicates matters because of its guiding provision that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Thus, although the government can’t force people to act in a manner inconsistent with their legitimate religious beliefs, neither can the military use religious doctrine as a basis for discriminating against those with whom they disagree.

There are good reasons to avoid the morality discussion with respect to gays in the military because there is no middle ground. For many, it is a black-and-white issue and nothing is going to change their minds. Thus, the elephant continues to persist, but the resistance to integrating gays in the military doesn’t stop on the grounds of moral resistance alone. Beyond threatening a common view of morality, integrating openly gay service members also poses a threat to the long-standing privileged status of the heterosexual male.

In a chapter in “Attitudes Aren’t Free,” professor Michael Allsep chronicles the career of Sen. James Webb from his student days at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he later took the oath of office as the secretary of the Navy. Prior to becoming secretary, he authored “A Sense of Honor,” which developed a near-cult following of military members of the early 1980s. Webb’s opposition to women at service academies was rooted in what he believed to be an inherent lack of fitness for combat. According to Allsep, Webb’s “opposition ultimately arose from masculinity, especially the relationship between masculinity and war, and the relationship between masculinity and nationalism.” Although Allsep was writing about the metamorphosis of the military culture in the 1970s to accept women into its ranks, there are strong parallels today with regard to the integration of gays. He continues: “Dominance behavior had to make room for expertise, which not only was incompatible with traditional notions of dominant masculinity, but also eventually opened doors for women. Neither form of masculinity displaced the other, but their coexistence was uneasy and often competitive, creating a battle between expertise ‘on tap or on top.’ The creation of nationalism sharpened the distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in a way that also empowered women by giving them space within the national community. Inside the military, however, this space was caught in the contest between the competing versions of masculinity. As a result, a form of hegemonic masculinity that privileged direct dominance, excluded women, and felt challenged by claims of expertise also claimed the mantle of nationalism. From it emerged a kind of masculinity that is most accurately characterized as ‘martial masculinity.’”

Just as women posed a threat to the martial masculine ideal inherent in the military culture 30 years ago, the male-dominated military culture faces a similar threat to its dominance with the integration of homosexual men today. There does seem to be a difference, however, between the integration of homosexual men and homosexual women. Part of the reason lies in demographics. With men accounting for about 80 percent of the military, the effects of homosexual men will be more prominent in terms of sheer numbers. Yet, there also seems to be a greater aversion to male homosexuality among men than to lesbianism.

To better understand how homosexuality is often viewed differently by men and women in today’s society, consider the following scenario. Twenty people are asked to participate in a session where they will be asked to comment on a series of video clips. First, a group of women are shown a 10-second clip of two women kissing. Their responses observed and recorded. Then the women are shown another 10-second video clip, this time of two men kissing. Again, their responses are observed and recorded. The women are then dismissed and the session repeated with a group of men. The results from discussions with groups of men and women over the past couple of years are illustrative. The all-female groups generally show a mild dislike for both women-kissing and men-kissing videos. However, in the case of the all-male group, the results are profoundly different. When the women-kissing clip is shown, responses from men range from ambivalence to outward excitement. Yet, when the men-kissing clip is shown, there is a marked and profound aversion. Whereas women tend to display relatively stable reaction levels to the video clips, the behavior of men tends to be radically different, ranging from a general acceptance of the women-kissing video to virulent animosity with the men-kissing video.

Some experts argue that such strong resistance is common when behaviors by minority groups threaten the privileged status of a dominant majority. As pointed out by the husband and wife author team of Steve and Dena Samuels in their chapter in “Attitudes Aren’t Free”: “Based on social group identities, systemic power inequalities work to include dominant statuses (e.g., white, male, wealthy people) at the exclusion of others (e.g., people of color, females, poor people). It is important to note that everyone is endowed with some type of privilege in society (e.g., heterosexuality, mental ability, Christianity, etc.). The notion of privilege, therefore, affects us all in some way, and therefore, we are all implicated in the systems of inequality. For example, a white, heterosexual, Christian male cadet has race, sexual orientation, religious, and gender privileges. Thus, he is more likely to be viewed as someone who ‘belongs’ at the Air Force Academy, rather than someone who is there only because of affirmative action. … Understanding these distinctions is essential to comprehending the power and inequalities that exist in our society. It is important to note that privilege is often invisible to those who have it. Since dominant statuses are considered the norm, everyone else is measured against that norm, and named accordingly.”

To the extent Allsep and the Samuels are correct, repeal of DADT may also pose a threat to the long-standing dominance of heterosexual men. Morality-based arguments aside, additional resistance can be expected from heterosexual men simply because of threat of integrating gay men into the current and long-standing martial-masculine culture of the military.


In her chapter “Defending the Culture of the Military,” Donnelly makes an extensive case of how the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” will threaten the existing paradigms prevalent within each of the military services. Specifically, she points out that one of the primary concerns of integrating openly gay men and women in the military would be that of forced intimacy. She argues: “A law mandating the inclusion of professed (not just discreet) homosexuals and bisexuals in this high-pressure environment, 24/7, would be tantamount to forcing female soldiers to share private living quarters with men.”

Living and field conditions can vary drastically for military members. However, the tighter the living, bathing and sleeping arrangement are, the more prominent this issue becomes. A Marine Corps officer recently described the male latrine facilities at Twentynine Palms, Calif., as an example of a complete and utter lack of privacy. “As far down the line as you care to see, there are toilets in a line. No walls, no privacy. If you have to take a dump, you’re knee to knee with everyone else. Knowing the guy next to me is gay, well, will give me a bit of pause.”

Such commentary is illustrative of how many military members, men and women alike, feel about forced intimacy. In a commentary in the Washington Post on June 4, Peter Moskos, speaking on behalf of his late father, Charles Moskos, architect of the current DADT policy, pointed out: “[I]n defending the law, my father had one hard-to-refute point: Civilized societies do not force people to get naked in front of those who might be sexually attracted to them. Since we do not force women to shower in front of men — not even in the military — why should we force men to shower with openly gay men?”

It’s safe to say that few people would prefer open shower bays to a private stall or a long row of commodes to a private latrine. But unlike changing the speed limit on the base, the inclusion of openly gay men and women into the daily operational lives of heterosexual military members who are accustomed to being segregated into groups that are normally believed to not be sexually attracted to one another provides a challenge to policy implementation.

The Way Forward

Over the past 60 years, diversity trends have been clear and compelling. To the chagrin of many, the integration of blacks into the military in 1948 started the process of diversifying the American military, which led it later to becoming the political battering ram to larger civil rights legislation a decade later. In the 1970s, the integration of women began. Although the path for women was sidetracked by a failed equal rights amendment to the Constitution, Congress eventually took unilateral action to admit women to service academies. Twenty years later, the issue of gays in the military came to the political forefront. When implemented in 1993, few people approved of DADT as a stable solution. No one liked it. Yet, everyone feared that any further change might force the pendulum to swing the wrong way. Now, nearly two decades later, it seems as if the American people are about to sanction the latest diversity element in the U.S. military.

Many of the arguments opposing gays in the military are identical to those levied against the integration of blacks and women decades earlier. The primary argument in favor of continued integration is also the same: The only discriminating factor should be one’s ability to do the job. Nevertheless, the integration of gays is clearly different from its historical predecessors because, unlike race and gender, repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” crosses moral, and for many, religious lines. This undeniable factor creates a layer of complexity that has not only amplified the emotional fortitude of the opposition, it has simultaneously forced silence on moral argument mute.

In his “Attitudes Aren’t Free” chapter, “Not Yes or No, But What If,” Army Maj. Matthew Cashdollar advocates that military leaders involve both pro-gay and religious groups in the discussions if and when the policy change becomes imminent. The purpose of an inclusive dialogue is not to appease both sides, but rather to acknowledge the complexity that military leaders at all levels will face during the transition period. Regardless of the outcome, what seems certain about the ultimate resolution of the policy is that neither side is likely to get everything it wants, but it is entirely possible that with an inclusive and respectful dialogue, both sides can get some of what they seek.

Some issues are simple: Modifying latrine facilities to make showers and toilets more private is rather easy and straightforward. Open homosexuality will threaten the modesty of those who are personally uncomfortable with having to be placed in a situation where they may have to be naked in front of others who are sexually attracted to them.

Other issues are more complex. In her “Attitudes” chapter, “The Sky Won’t Fall,” Tammy Schultz, professor at the Marine Corps War College, provides an extensive discussion of potential issues and solutions including suggestions for the types of training that will be required to facilitate successful integration. However, the most contentious element remains the persistent elephant named Morality. Controlling morality generally, and sexual behavior specifically, has been a guiding principle of nearly every major religion throughout history. Once open homosexuality is sanctioned in the U.S. military, the religiously devout may have a difficult time serving on active duty. Integration efforts over the past 60 years have continually eroded the influence of the majority to align with the will of the Congress. The Janus-faced nature of the U.S. military dictates that there will always be some tension between military leadership and its civilian masters. In light of the fact that the U.S. military has been largely dominated by straight, white, male Christians, additional resistance to the integration of gays should be both anticipated and overcome. Despite the political rhetoric that is destined to come on both sides of the argument, the path forward is one of strong, competent leadership. Congress will make the laws, and military leaders will enforce them.

Military leaders cannot let the arguments of morality or privilege detract them from coming up with solutions to the forthcoming issues they will face. Be it black or white, male or female, Christian or atheist, heterosexual or homosexual, what matters most is a person’s ability to do a job and in an environment where professional behavior is the norm and nothing else is tolerated. We are fortunate to live in a free country and serve in an all-volunteer force. Every uniformed member serves at the pleasure of the president and Congress, and if ever that obligation becomes too tenuous, then perhaps its time for those to find a new line of employment. AFJ

DAVE LEVY is an associate professor of management at the Air Force Academy. LT. COL. JIM PARCO is a professor of leadership and strategy at the Air Command and Staff College. They are co-authors of the books “The 52nd Floor: Thinking Deeply About Leadership” and “Attitudes Aren’t Free: Thinking Deeply About Diversity in the U.S. Armed Forces.” The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Air University, the Air Force Academy, the Air Force or the Defense Department.