Sen. Barack Obama and the most senior military officer to endorse him do not agree on an important Pentagon issue—gays in the military. Obama says that, if elected president, he will work for a consensus on repealing the law that bans open homosexuals in the ranks. He will likely have a Democratic Congress to do just that. But retired Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak, who backed Obama early in the primaries and lent him credibility on national security, tells Whispers the ban should stay.
McPeak says he wants Obama to stick with "don't ask, don't tell," a compromise the general helped hammer out with the newly elected President Clinton when McPeak sat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993. The policy lets gays serve as long as they keep their sexuality private.
McPeak answered with an abrupt "no" when asked if he supports Obama's plan. "The issue is unit cohesion in combat units," says McPeak, a former fighter pilot. "I think with combat units the question of cohesion is crucial. It is a war-winner. . . . My judgment is declared homosexuality in combat units will not contribute to unit cohesion. In fact, as near as I can tell, it would be inimical to it."
McPeak drew a parallel between racially integrating the armed forces after World War II and trying to sell the ranks on accepting openly gay colleagues. "We've only had mixed races in combat units for 50 years or so," says McPeak, who led the Air Force during Desert Storm. "The first mixing of races was by the Army in Korea in 1950. It was done because service leaders, generals, chiefs of staff, were able to get ahead of it, were able to go to the lunch at black history week and talk about American values that include equal opportunity for everybody no matter what color their skin is. So the service leadership made a commitment to racial equality and made it happen. Otherwise it wouldn't have happened."
Says McPeak, "If you want to do something like racial integration or the integration of openly homosexual soldiers, sailors and marines, airmen, the service leadership will have to get ahead of it. Service leadership will have to go to the gay and lesbian annual ball and lead the first dance. I've spoken many, many times at black history week and am proud to do it. . . . But I couldn't see how I could become an advocate for open homosexuality in Air Force combat units. I don't see how people can do it today."