'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' Is a National Shame on Veterans Day

Don't wait for Congress to vote on repeal, Mr. President.

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Sun-dappled trees showing off their autumn canopies make this November day in Washington seem sweet and fleeting with the shorter days.

How awfully bright and warm it is for Veterans Day--on the 11th day of the 11th month. The Armistice ending the "Great War" happened on this day about 90 years ago. So horrific was trench warfare, claiming a generation of England's and Europe's young men, that it was supposed to be the war to end all wars--according to world leaders. While the capital seems serene today, the nation has close to 100,000 troops abroad in two unfinished wars. Thousands of our soldiers have laid down their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Today feels like a precious space for reflection before the rumble returns for the lame-duck session of Congress--a reflection not on the battles and wars we've lost and won, for there have been both in the march of history. The War of 1812, unpopular with the people, was known derisively as "Mr. Madison’s War" and later, when all was said and done in Baltimore and New Orleans, "The War that Nobody Won."

Just a suggestion: I propose we reflect on the number of unknown soldiers who served their country while being homosexual, kind of like driving while black. The magnitude is hard for us to fully take in, but militarys have had gay soldiers and generals always, at least since Alexander conquered the world. The United States is the only Western democracy to have such a punitive policy as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," instituted in 1993 by President Clinton and Congress as a compromise on human rights and military "readiness" or "cohesion" or "morale." The third part of that uneasy compromise was supposed to "Don't Pursue," by the way. But they did, all four services. They spent a lot of time and money--and readiness, morale, cohesion--on spying on, expelling, and exposing men and women soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen. It's a shame on our national record, a shadow on so many silenced lives--both in and out of the military, including the storied service academies.

For the record, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, was none too helpful to his new boss and commander in chief, President Clinton, who really wished to lift the ban altogether. Powell's political judgment has never been great, exalted as he once was--until his infamous United Nations speech on Iraq in 2003. But we won't go there today. At any rate, Powell and then-Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia are the go-to guys to thank for blocking that reform 17 years ago.

President Obama would like to do the right thing by allowing gays to serve openly in the all-volunteer force we have today, which puts itself in harm's way. But his administration has told the courts they would like the policy to be voted on in Congress to make it stick. Once again, that may be too sweetly reasoned and rational for the game being played--even the NFL is going easier on its players in the grand spectacles it stages, but Washington is more like the ancient Roman Coliseum.

Even more to the point, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said this week: Let's get it done already. He supports lifting the ban, which is the first time a secretary of defense has done so. That is an incredible gift, like manna falling, but Gates will be gone soon (to retire) and an even more fractious Congress is coming to town. The new Republican House, come January, would just love to vote on this. Don't let them do it, Mr. President.

America's most mercurial senator, John McCain, has changed his mind again and sadly, he's a principal obstacle to this historic legislation. Admitting women to the military and the service academies happened only by laws passed not even 40 years ago--not because the military realized that was the right thing to do. Obama should sit down with that proud son and grandson of Navy admirals, a prisoner of war and a war hero, and see if they can't champion this progress together. End the year on an up-note before the darkness sets in.

[See where McCain gets his campaign money.]

Just like this late autumnal afternoon, there's just enough light and time before us to witness passage of a law to permit gays to serve openly in the military. Don't the let the hour pass, my friends--civilian and military. This affects us all.

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