The debate over “don’t ask / don’t tell” in the military is often presented as a battle between liberals and conservatives. That’s not correct – and not fair to conservatives.
In fact, a strong majority of conservatives also want to see the policy ended. According to a June Gallup poll, weekly churchgoers (60%), conservatives (58%), and Republicans (58%) effectively favor ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” A Washington Post/ABC News poll last year concluded 64 percent of all conservatives and all Republicans supported open service. There has no doubt been a sea change since 1993 among conservatives in how they view this issue.
Attitudes of military personnel have changed, too. Seventy-three percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are “comfortable” with gay people (Zogby International, 2006).
Conservatives have not lost their support for traditional values. They are learning from experience – and especially from military experience.
They have seen too many translators kicked out of a military that desperately needs linguistic skills. They have heard of too many skilled intelligence operatives lost. They have watched the poignant interview with a decorated Gulf War F-15 aviator who was recently served discharge papers after 18 years in the military.
Six hundred military personnel are discharged every year under DADT – 13,000 since the policy was commenced – at a time when our military needs every qualified and willing service member it can enlist and retain.
Like any community, the gay community includes people of more and less conservative values and opinions. Gays serving this country are among some of the more conservative members of the gay community. Yet these are precisely the people targeted by current policy. Military service does not lend itself to leading flamboyant lives under those buzz cuts. They are threatened with expulsion if they answer, “I went to a movie with my partner” when asked what they did over the weekend.
When DADT was introduced in 1993, it was justified by warnings that straights would flee military service if gays served openly. Attitudes have changed. Many soldiers know exactly which of their colleagues are gay. They feel no need to quit. There has been no exodus from the armed forces of Britain or Israel (no shabby military here) after both changed their policies to allow gays to serve openly.
Laura Miller of the conservative RAND Corporation concluded in 2008 there are “no associations between knowing a lesbian or gay unit member and ratings of perceived unit cohesion or readiness.”
Gay Americans are asking for an equal opportunity to enlist, to serve, to fight and if need be, to die to protect their fellow Americans. American conservatives, with their special respect for the military vocation, should be ready to answer: Yes – and thank you.