Abby Walla, English 101
Instructor: Ida Ghaffari
Krupnick Award, Research Essay, 2010
Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach served on active duty in the United States Air Force for 18 years; he was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan where he flew combat missions and received nine air medals including one for his heroism in Afghanistan. Lt. Col. Fehrenbach is only two years away from retirement, yet in September of 2008, he was served discharge papers that would end his military career under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy because he is gay (“Fighting to Serve”). In a time when the United States military is stretched thin and fighting two wars, is it practical to be discharging a highly decorated 18-year veteran because of his sexual preference? The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is not sensible and has had significant costs both monetarily and in personnel, while compromising unit cohesion.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” came to be in 1993 when President Clinton attempted to follow through on a promise he made during his campaign to lift the ban on gays serving in the military. He anticipated that he would be able to lift the ban as President Truman had made an Executive Order to desegregate the military in 1948. However, Clinton was met with overwhelming criticism and resistance from the Pentagon, Congress, and religious leaders. While Clinton was not able to lift the ban, a compromise was made and Congress passed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy. DADT stated that homosexuals could serve in the military on the condition that they kept their sexual orientation private and would be discharged if they admitted their orientation or engaged in homosexual activities. On the flip side, the US Military was no longer able to ask about a service member’s sexual orientation (“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Harass Policy”). President Obama has since made a promise both during his campaign and more recently to end DADT, but he has yet to set a timeline or put forth any clear plans (Stolberg).

While there are serious moral issues involving the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, if solely the hard facts are examined, it is clear that it is a costly law. A University of California Blue Ribbon Commission that included former Secretary of Defense William Perry issued a report in 2006 detailing the monetary costs of DADT because they felt that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) underestimated the costs in their study a year before. From 1994 - 2003, there were 9,500 service members discharged under the DADT policy. The GAO study estimated the costs to be above $190.5 million for this time period, while The University of California report was nearly 91 percent higher at $364 million of taxpayer’s money. The estimate of $364 million is so much higher because their report included the millions spent on recruiting and training the soldiers to replace the soldiers fired because they were openly gay, as well as the money already spent to train the gay service members (White). In the case of Lt. Co. Fehrenbach who was in the military for 18 years, he estimates that the Air Force spent $25 million training him over the years only to fire him two years before retirement. Remember that this number of $364 million is only for the first ten years of DADT and that there have been six more years since this study that taxpayers have been using their hard earned money to compensate for the military discharging trained and qualified soldiers who have a desire to serve.

There is no doubt that the monetary costs of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are exceptional, however it is also important to address the loss of qualified personnel due to DADT. Since 1993 when the ban went into effect, about 13,000 service members have been discharged under DADT, with an estimated 60,000 homosexuals serving secretly in the military (Rolfsen). Before the law was passed, discharges for homosexual acts had been declining, yet after passing the law, the rate of discharges doubled through 2001. There are conflicting reasons for the rise in discharges including the change in the way they are recorded, and also the possibility that service members may be falsely declaring they are homosexual for a quick way out of the military with an honorable discharge. There is no way to know the exact reasons, however the point is that the military lost 13,000 service members, which is an entire division, to DADT. It is actually likely that the number is much higher if it included service members who chose not to reenlist because of DADT (Prakash). One of these discharged service members was Lt. Dan Choi of the Army National Guard. On March 19, 2009, Lt. Choi went on The Rachel Maddow Show and announced that he was gay, knowing that this may lead to his discharge from the Army. Lt. Choi is a West Point graduate, Iraq War veteran, and Arabic linguist. He was one of only eight in his graduating class at West Point that majored in Arabic. In Iraq, he spent much of his time going into town meetings and explaining the goals of the US Military to the Iraqi people and answering questions about their concerns. His fluency in Arabic allowed him to relate to the Iraqi people in a way that other soldiers may not have been able to do. Arabic linguists are a crucial part to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so firing a linguist who is willing to deploy again is inexcusable (“Right to Serve”).

It is clear that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” comes with tremendous costs, however it was put into place by people who feel these costs are worth it to keep homosexuals out of the military. Those supporting the ban originally had three arguments when they were proposing the law: health risks, lifestyle risks, and unit cohesion. The first two arguments had to do with a study that homosexuals had high rates of HIV/AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases and that they were more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Neither of these arguments made it into the final law, and unit cohesion became their central argument for keepings homosexuals out of the military (Prakash). The final language of the law drafted by Congress states:

One of the most critical elements in combat capability is unit cohesion, that is, the bonds of trust among individual service members that make the combat effectiveness of a military unit greater than the sum of the combat effectiveness of the individual members…The presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability (US Code 654).

According to this law, having homosexuals in the military hurts the unit cohesion, and in turn negatively affects the combat effectiveness. Another argument is that there is no constitutional right to serve in the military; therefore Congress has the right to decide who can and cannot serve. The military’s goal is to find the most effective people to fit the unique skills needed to be a service member and it is important to note that active duty places heavy demand on service members including sleeping and bathing in close quarters. Sexual tensions in these close quarters are sure to negatively affect unit cohesion (Maginnis). Elaine Donnelly, President of the Michigan Center for Military Readiness supports DADT and said, "It's really not fair to the women and men of our armed forces to be part of this social experiment. Military life is difficult enough without having this additional burden. This is harmful to good order and discipline and morale." (“Aviator…”).

As unit cohesion is the central rationale for the necessity of DADT, it is important to define it clearly. The U.S. Army Terms defines unit cohesion as the “result of controlled, interactive forces that lead to solidarity within military units directing soldiers towards common goals with an express commitment to one another and the unit as a whole” (qtd in Prakash). Research on cohesion has shown that it is multi layered and behavioral scientists have divided it between, “social cohesion (the nature and quality of the emotional bonds of friendship, liking, caring, and closeness among group members) and task cohesion (members' shared commitment to achieving a goal that requires the collective efforts of the group)” (Belkin). For example, a group with high social cohesion would like each other, feel emotionally close and want to spend time together, whereas a group with high task cohesion would be focused on a common goal and determined to achieve it as a team. Most scholars and a study by Robert J. MacCoun concluded that task cohesion, not social cohesion, is the most important factor in combat effectiveness and high performance. In fact, a group with too high of a social cohesion may have a negative effect on the performance levels because of various reasons including too much socializing, groupthink, and mutiny. MacCoun’s study showed that integrating homosexuals into the military would either have no effect or only an effect on the social cohesion, which would unlikely influence the performance quality (Belkin). Important qualities that contribute to high task cohesion and high performance levels are individuals who are, “deeply committed to the military’s core values, professional teamwork, physical stamina, loyalty, and selfless service.” Considering that homosexuals serving in the military are doing so at a high risk to themselves, it is suggested that they have these qualities and contribute to high levels of combat effectiveness (Prakash). As President Obama stated, "We should not be punishing patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve the country, we should be celebrating their willingness to step forward and show such courage" (Stolberg).

Supporters of DADT are so concerned about how heterosexual service members will be affected by serving alongside homosexuals, that they are not considering how it affects the gay service members who have to keep their identity a secret. As was stated earlier, Elaine Donnelly of the Military Readiness Group said, “Military life is difficult enough without having this additional burden.” (“Aviator…”). She may have been saying this in support of DADT, but it is also true of the stresses placed on gay service members. Lt. Choi felt this so strongly that he voluntarily admitted that he was gay on national television in hopes of making progress to end this unjust law. Lt. Choi cites the Cadet Honor Code that he so diligently recited at West Point that states, "A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do." The policy of DADT is in direct opposition of the Honor Code as it forces service members to lie. Lt. Choi recalls learning that, “deception and lies poison a unit and cripple a fighting force.” Imagine his feelings as a dedicated service member having to keep his sexual orientation secret from his unit and feeling as if he is going against what he is taught about honesty in the military. As an officer, Lt. Choi swore to follow and execute every order given to him except those that are, “illegal, immoral, and unethical.” Lt. Choi decided it was more important to do the right thing, admit he is gay and fight against this law that goes against everything he learned while training at the prestigious West Point (“Right to Serve”).

For those in support of DADT who are afraid of a disaster if homosexuals are allowed to serve openly in the military, they need not look further than the 24 nations that allow gays in the military, including Israel. In 1983, Israel permitted homosexuals to serve in the military, but they were banned from high-level intelligence positions until 1993 when all restrictions were lifted. In response to the effects of gays serving openly in the military, a former Israeli Defense Force officer said, "It's a non-issue... You can be a very good officer, a creative one, a brave one and be gay at the same time." He went on to note that being patriotic is not connected to sexual orientation and that they serve alongside each other as fellow citizens (Eichner). Even in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom where there was high opposition to allowing gays to serve openly, after lifting their bans, it was declared that the result was “no-effect.” Homosexuals serving openly did not negatively affect their unit cohesion, performance levels, or the rate of sexually transmitted diseases (Prakash). In addition to all of this, it is a new generation and the acceptance of homosexuality among Americans is growing. In a Washington Post-ABC News Poll in 2008, seventy-five percent of Americans said that gays who were open about their sexuality should be allowed to serve in the military, which is a huge increase from the forty-four percent that said this in 1993 when DADT was passed (Dropp and Cohen). With the examples of other nations that have lifted their respective bans without issue, there is no excuse for the military to continue to discharge qualified service members solely because they are gay.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was implemented to make the military stronger and our nation safer, but we need to ask ourselves if the United States Military is truly better able to do their job without individuals like Lt. Col. Fehrenbach and Lt. Choi fighting by their side. We can only hope that President Obama will hold onto his pledge and successfully lift the ban on homosexuals serving openly in the military. If not, then Americans will have to watch their tax dollars pay for the military to continue to fire decorated veterans and Arabic linguists who are willing to sacrifice their lives for our country’s safety.


Works Cited


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