Alexander Nicholson is the author of Fighting to Serve: Behind the Scenes in the War to Repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
The institution of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is entrusted with a critical statutory responsibility—advising the president, the secretary of defense, the Homeland Security Council, and the National Security Council on defense and security policy issues. The service chiefs are also often called before Congress to provide policy assessments and advice based on their professional military judgment. Because so much deference is given by our senior civilian government leaders—and even by civilian courts—to "professional military judgment" generally, and to the thoughts and opinions of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff specifically, it is vitally important that this advice be purely professional, untainted by politics, and not skewed by personal prejudices. It is a heavy responsibility, and one that the men who have occupied these positions surely do not take lightly. That's why it was so disappointing to see the reputation of this esteemed institution, that of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, degraded by the actions of several of its recent members during the protracted political war over the now-repealed "don't ask, don't tell" law.
In 1993 when the "gays in the military" issue was first debated on a national scale, each of the Joint Chiefs went down the line during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing and testified one after another that homosexuality was "incompatible… incompatible… incompatible" with military service, with Chairman and General Colin Powell adding the caveat that "open homosexuality is incompatible with military service." Back then, an uninvolved observer might have bought that such an assessment could be warranted based on professional military judgment, since a robust body of research on and experience with uncloseted homosexuality in the armed forces was lacking at the time.
But by the time the Joint Chiefs were called to testify before that same Senate committee again on this issue, not only did extensive research exist on the topic, but the experiences of the combat-hardened forces of many of our closest allies who had previous lifted their gay bans provided a series natural experiments to which our senior defense leaders could look to examine the results of such a personnel policy change. And even if they thought the ally analogies to be flawed, many anecdotal cases even within our own military existed for evaluation as a result of increased defiance of the law by gay and lesbian troops who came out to their peers and served openly in sizeable numbers on active duty in the half-decade before the law's repeal while their peers accepted them and their commands looked the other way.
Even without these demonstrations at home and abroad of uncloseted gay men and women serving in uniform without a deterioration in unit cohesion, morale, or combat readiness, proper military discipline and command obedience should have assured the Joint Chiefs that cohesion, and therefore readiness, would not be a problem if the traditional homosexual exclusion policies were done away with. Indeed, in the 2010 hearings on the repeal of what came to be known as the "don't ask, don't tell" law, Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado posed this very question to the then-current members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who were testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee. In a scene nearly identical to that iconic down-the-row scene in 1993, the Joint Chiefs once again testified one-by-one that, if Congress did end up repealing the law, they could, could, could, could make repeal work in the armed forces.
I had more than a little something to do with the creation of that parallel moment during the above-mentioned Senate Armed Services Committee hearing specifically, as well as helping to build and sustain a successful education and advocacy movement surrounding the "gays in the military" issue generally in the five years leading up to the law's repeal. The number one obstacle we faced in trying to move many members of Congress forward on this issue was not religion, not public opinion, and not ignorance. Our opponents on Capitol Hill knew very well that times had changed, that the younger generation of troops was more accepting of those who were different than they were, and that American public opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of scrapping the "don't ask, don't tell" law. But many of them gave blind deference to the professional military judgment of the service chiefs on the issue. And while the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, Admiral Michael Mullen, boldly professed his personal opinion that heterosexual troops could remain professional and productive in the presence of uncloseted gay and lesbian troops, other members of the esteemed advisory body warned of doom and gloom within the ranks if the law were repealed.