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Military Questions Mount in Wake of DADT

Years of operating under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy created a backlog of questions to answer as the U.S. military works to integrate openly gay troops into the ranks.
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The military's training materials on the upcoming repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" have been trickling out to the public over the last couple of weeks. The PowerPoint slides, frequently asked questions and fictional vignettes — aimed primarily at preparing straight troops and not those who will be most affected by the new policy — offer a window into the myriad hypothetical anxieties repeal has touched.

"Is consensual sodomy still a punishable offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice?" poses one question from the Navy's FAQ sheet.

"Will the Department of Defense build separate living or bathroom facilities for gay and straight Service members?" asks another.

"Does repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell affect the speech, morals or religious rights of Sailors?"

The Navy's accompanying vignette handout — surely a great find for historians 50 years from now, a companion archive to documents like the 1946 "Utilization of Negro Manpower in the Postwar Army Policy" — delves even deeper into the most graphic fears of repeal foes. What action should the commanding officer take if a sailor has been observed "entering, leaving and generally 'hanging around' a gay bar"? Or marching in a gay pride parade? Or kissing another service member, in plain clothes, at the mall food court?

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

The military is leaving no question unasked (perhaps in part to save soldiers the embarrassment of asking such questions themselves). Although, ironically, the answers — and the full implications of repeal — are considerably less ambiguous than so much role-playing would suggest.

"If you look at actually most of the specific policy areas where questions are arising in the transition, the guiding rule is 'no change,'" said Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center think tank at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "What are they telling chaplains? No change. Marriage benefits? No change. Housing, for the most part, absent some emergencies? No change. Collection of data on gays? No change.

"The big change is just that they're going to stop firing gays for uttering the words 'I am gay.'"

Racial integration of the armed forces was arguably a much more dramatic policy shift, but the military's training preparations for DADT repeal far surpass any efforts that were made in the 1940s and 1950s to prepare blacks and whites to serve alongside each other. Training for the integration of women in 1976 was also limited mostly to the service academies. President Truman famously penned the 1948 executive order calling for equal treatment of blacks in the military. But integration only truly occurred — out of logistical necessity — during the Korean War.

"Because this was basically done on the battlefield, we didn't have the luxury of time to prepare the soldiers," wrote David Segal, a professor of military sociology at the University of Maryland, in an email. And it wasn't until 1971 that the Pentagon established the Defense Race Relations Institute — now the renamed Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute — to train troops on race relations.

Today, many DADT repeal supporters want the process to move faster, and Belkin acknowledges their argument that straight troops already interact with gays every day and don't particularly need to be taught how to do that.

"But the parallel truth is that there's an organizational reality here that the military has been living with 'don't ask, don't tell' for 17 years," Belkin said. "And when you shift an organization of 2.2 million people that has such a deep culture, it's sometimes difficult to turn on a dime."

The military chiefs have tried to tap into that culture, emphasizing throughout the training materials that service members are expected to carry themselves through this policy shift the same way they do all of their other duties — with "leadership, professionalism, discipline, respect."

The Air Force PowerPoint opens by emphasizing that the DADT briefings are meant to inform airmen about repeal and its effects, "NOT to change beliefs." Still, the new policy is an order like any other. The training materials all stress that the Department of Defense is creating no special category of early service release for troops who oppose the new policy on moral or religious grounds.

Each branch of the military is preparing its own materials, with most training expected to conclude in August. But once the service chiefs have announced they believe implementation can move forward without harming the armed forces, the White House and Pentagon must still certify the repeal plan. And the new law won't go in effect for another 60 days after that.

That drawn-out process — particularly in comparison to allied militaries that have integrated gays with less handwringing — has left many repeal advocates anxious to get through the discussion of all the ways in which the new policy will not change much of anything.

"This training is not rocket science," Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said in a statement Tuesday. "The services can get this done by April 30."

The U.S. military's own history integrating blacks and women also offers an instructive lesson about the timing and execution of DADT repeal. Its opponents in Washington have cautioned against making such a dramatic change in policy at a time of war (and much of the exhaustive DADT training is undoubtedly meant to mollify those critics). But the military has made such transitions in the past precisely because of war, when combat operations have made integration a practical necessity as much as a civil rights question.

We expanded the role of women in World War II out of necessity, Segal points out, then did the same with blacks during the Korean War when the military was manning the battlefield with the depleted Depression generation. The services became yet more inclusive in the 1970s when the end of the draft required it to. And the same pattern holds today, as Arabic linguists discharged under DADT, at a time of war in the Middle East, have helped illustrate the logistical folly of excluding competent soldiers when mission readiness is paramount.

"President Clinton chose exactly the wrong time to try to lift the ban: The economy was in trouble, enlistments were high, and we weren't at war," Segal wrote. For all of the opposite reasons, the time is ripe now for repealing the ban, and this has little to do with the military's commitment to training material.

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