Yesterday the House Armed Services Committee held hearings on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Apparently, there were fireworks, and perhaps in a different mood I might enjoy poking fun at them. But I was struck by two things about the hearing. The first was Rep. Patrick Murphy's questioning of a witness opposed to letting gay men and lesbians serve in the military, whether openly or not:
Murphy makes what I've always thought is an important point about arguments against letting gay men and lesbians serve: that those arguments are an insult to the men and women in our armed forces. He says:
"Ms. Donnelly, you testified that gays and lesbians cannot serve openly in the military because, and I quote, it would be detrimental to unit cohesion, end quote. In essence, you're arguing that straight men and women in our military aren't professional enough to serve openly with gay troops while successfully completing their military mission. As a former Army officer, I can tell you I think that's an insult to me and to many of the soldiers."
I imagine that it often happens that soldiers who are part of the same unit do not like one another. Sometimes, a soldier might even despise another member of his or her unit, or think that other soldier immoral or contemptible. And yet, when these feelings do not have to do with sexual orientation, we routinely expect soldiers to put their personal feelings aside and do their jobs. And when they don't, we assume that they, not the people they endanger, should be disciplined.
If, for instance, a soldier is racist, and cannot find a way to work with African-American soldiers, we do not discipline or expel the African-Americans. If a soldier dislikes another and cannot put her feelings aside and do her job, we do not punish the soldier she dislikes; we punish her. In all other cases, we assume that given a choice between two soldiers, one of whom is trying to complete his mission to the best of his ability, and one of whom is unable or unwilling to put his animosity aside and do his job, we choose the first. We expect this of our men and women in uniform, and we also expect that they will be given the training and the leadership they need to act like professionals.
I have never understood why it's different when gay men and lesbians enter the picture.
The second is a passage from the testimony (pdf) of Captain (ret.) Joan Darrah. Captain Darrah served in naval intelligence for almost thirty years. She writes:
"In September of 2001, the true impact of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on me personally came into sharp focus. On Tuesday, September 11, I was at the Pentagon attending the weekly 8:30 intelligence briefing. During the briefing, we watched on CNN as the planes hit the Twin Towers. Finally at 9:30 my meeting was adjourned. When American Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon, I was at the Pentagon bus stop. As it turned out, the space I had been in seven minutes earlier was completely destroyed. Seven of my co-workers were killed. The reality is that if I had been killed, my partner then of 11 years, would have been the last to know as I had not dared to list her in my emergency contact information."
I cannot imagine what it must be like to serve in the military, of all things, and not dare to list the woman you love on your emergency contact information. Not to know that if something happens to you, she will be told. To depend on others to decide whether or not to inform the woman you have been with for eleven years, others who might or might not accept who you are, and who she is to you.
Asking someone to choose between serving their country and acknowledging who they are is obviously cruel. But the smaller and more intimate effects of our policy, like this one, are what truly brings its inhumanity home to me.