An Argument For Discrimination

Congress is considering whether to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the policy that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces. But retired Army Lt. Col. Bob Maginnis says the military must make careful calculations about who can serve in order to function at its best. Lt. Col. Maginnis, who advised the Pentagon when it was establishing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, argues the military should make regulations independent of shifting public opinion on homosexuality. And Leo Shane, from Stars and Stripes Newspaper, offers and update on an ongoing military-wide study about the issue.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll hear reaction from Chicago about the stunning conclusion of the trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. And we'll hear from Detroit about the wife of congressman John Conyers, who's about to begin serving a three-year-plus prison sentence.

But first, continuing discussion about Don't Ask Don't Tell. That's the law that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they refrain from disclosing their sexual orientation. Congress is considering whether to repeal the law, and an internal review is under way to determine how changing the policy might affect service members.

Earlier this week, we heard from a West Point cadet who is leaving the academy because she says the cost to her integrity, of hiding her sexuality, was higher than she had imagined. And we heard from Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fehrenbach, a 19-year veteran of the Air Force who said he had successfully served under the policy, but was facing discharge because of the unfounded allegations of a third party. But on Monday, the Air Force agreed to delay a ruling in Lieutenant Colonel Fehrenbach's case.

Today as promised, we are bringing another perspective. Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Bob Maginnis is a vocal supporter of the policy. He participated in an Army study group about the issue of gays in the military back in 1993, the year that Don't Ask Don't Tell was put into place. In the years since, he's advised the Pentagon about the issue, and he's also a senior fellow for national security at the Family Research Council. That's a conservative think tank and advocacy group that advances conservative social values.

Recently, Lieutenant Colonel Maginnis authored the report "Mission Compromised: How the Obama Administration is Drafting the Military Into the Culture War." And he's with us now from his office.

And for additional perspective, we've also called Leo Shane. He's a reporter for the Stars and Stripes newspaper, and he's also been covering this issue closely. And I welcome you both, and thank you for joining us.

Mr. LEO SHANE (Reporter, Stars and Stripes): Thanks for having me back.

Lieutenant Colonel ROBERT MAGINNIS (U.S. Army, Retired): Well, thank you.

MARTIN: Lieutenant Colonel, let's start with you. You articulate several key points about how repealing the policy would be detrimental to readiness - and not just the atmosphere of the military, but the readiness mission, how it would compromise the mission. If you could just enumerate those points briefly. And I understand it's a complicated issue, but if you could just summarize as briefly as you can.

Lt. Col. MAGINNIS: It was in 1993 that Congress embraced the law that prohibits service by homosexuals. Well, the Pentagon, under President Clinton, implemented a regulation that is somewhat inconsistent with the law. But it's a political compromise. It's known as Don't Ask Don't Tell. And of course, that is what has created what I consider a double pretense. The military is supposed to pretend it doesn't care that homosexuals serve, and the homosexual is supposed to pretend that they aren't homosexual. So that's problematic.

What your listener needs to appreciate is that Congress has always mandated the military to be very discriminatory. I mean, they've given us 35 pages of medical, you know, reasons that people can't serve. They've told us about age and citizenship, associations - a whole bunch of things. So we are inherently a discriminatory organization.

Homosexuality is one of those criteria that since the time of George Washington to the present ,we have discriminated against. What the final report that was published by the working group in '93 came up with was that unit cohesion would be damaged. And they also said readiness, readiness in terms of medical recruiting and retention. They felt it was a very compelling argument. The Democratic Congress in '93 embraced that, passed the law. The military subsequently embraced what, obviously, the law said and wrote the regulation. So that's kind of the brief background as to why and wherefore.

MARTIN: Well, I asked Lieutenant Colonel Fehrenbach about this whole question of whether having service members who are openly gay is incompatible with the mission, is incompatible with questions of readiness. And this is - let me just play a short clip of what he had to say.

Lieutenant Colonel VICTOR FEHRENBACH (U.S. Air Force): This isn't hypothetical. When I've deployed, you don't think about those things, you know? You think about combat. You think about staying alive. You think about doing your next mission. You think about where you're going to get your next meal, how you're going get sleep. You think about your family back home. No one's thinking about who they're showering next to.

MARTIN: So what about that, Colonel Maginnis? Lieutenant Colonel Fehrenbach says that there's been 20 years of - just about 20 years of experience with this, and that serving can be uncomfortable for lots of ways. But then when people are on mission, that's not what's on their minds. What do you say to that?

Lt. Col. MAGINNIS: Well, there's truth to the fact that you do focus on the mission. But once again, going back to the concerns of the military in putting together groups of people, categories of people that best serve based upon the experience, a year ago, Michel, there was a letter delivered to the president by almost 1,363 general and flag officers that outlined - they're concerned about the retention and recruitment impact of bringing an open homosexual change to the current policy.

They said that this is not a wise thing to do, especially in time of war. Anecdotally, we find all sorts of plaudits and, you know, accomplishments in boasting about, you know, no impact on readiness. But when we look at the sociology, we look at the experience writ large across the military over many years, we come to a very different conclusion. That's why in '93, looking at the same evidence that obviously, the Comprehensive Review Working Group is supposed to look at today, we came to a very compelling conclusion - and that is, that it would hurt combat effectiveness.

You know, the American people need to appreciate that this culture we call the military is very different than the culture, you know, across the United States today. It's not a pop culture; it's a culture that has a very specific mission, which the American people do endorse.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, though - do you think that part of the difference of opinion here might be generational? You mentioned a letter that was signed by a number of generals and flag officers. And it also is worth noting that there are also a number of high-ranking military leaders who also support repealing the policy, which they have so stated.

But do you think, in part, it's generational, that perhaps the people of that generation didn't know very many people who were gay or lesbian, and had formed an opinion about them based on a lack of knowledge. And now, a lot of younger people are more used to and have more people in their lives who they know are openly gay and are just not as upset, or it just isn't as big of a deal - do you think that might be possible?

Lt. Col. MAGINNIS: Well, certainly, Michel, you know, generational differences will matter in the politics. And I think we've seen that in the current Congress. My concern is that fundamentally, the military as a social institution, with its stark missions, has not radically changed over the last 20 years. Neither has homosexuality.

Certainly within the culture at large, it has become more acceptable. But when you put together the two - homosexuality and the military culture - I still see a significant conflict. You're right about the generational differences. The younger people today are far more accepting of homosexuality, and I think that's evident in the polls. But I caution people not to judge the military culture as like the American culture. It's radically different. We expect them to do something that is not common in this world today.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask you, though, whether your stance on this is also informed by your own standard of morality? Which is not to say that morality is not, you know, relevant. For example, the Army has regulations on adultery, for example, that are not present - or the military on adultery and other moral issues that are not present in most of civilian life anymore, at least they're not regulated in the same way - for precisely the reason you state. But do you mind if I ask whether, in part, your view of this is informed by your own standard of morality?

Lt. Col. MAGINNIS: Well, certainly if - I've been in the military off and on since I was a teenager, over 40 years. And what I learned at West Point was perhaps influential in what I believe to be right and wrong. I used to be the chief for leadership at the Army's largest school, the infantry school at Fort Benning. And we talked about ethics and values and the like.

You have to understand, though, Michel, that the culture of the military today, we look at the group, and not at the individual's religious or moral background. We look at the writ large, what the values of the institution are. And if you have a group whose values are fundamentally different than that of the institution, then we begin to question whether or not that category should be accessed.

You know, I try and I have, certainly since the beginning of this particular debate in '93, tried to look at it from an institutional policy perspective. Because if I get into my personal views or I get into, you know, the individual cases like Colonel Fehrenbach, then we lose focus on, really, what the best interest of the institution is.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about Don't Ask Don't Tell. That's the policy that prohibits gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. Earlier in this week, we heard from two service members who were facing separation from service because of their sexual orientation.

We offered a different perspective today. We're speaking with retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Bob Maginnis, who's written extensively about this, and also served on a group that examined the 1993 law. Now, for additional perspective, I'd like bring Leo Shane in here. He reports on the issue for Stars and Stripes newspaper. He's here with me in the studio.

Leo, talk to me about the survey that was sent to service members. They had until Sunday to return it. It was sent to 400,000 service members. Now, the survey itself is controversial because some people say the questions of justice and civil rights should not be put to a vote. But I would like to ask: What was in the survey?

Mr. SHANE: Sure. Well, the survey was sent out about a month ago to 400,000 - it was 200,000 active duty, 200,000 Guard and Reserve - randomly selected. And it asked questions based on, you know, what your morale currently is, how do you think your morale would be affected if you were to serve alongside an openly gay service member. Would it affect your decision to re-up? How do you think it would affect the values and the mission? Questions of that sort. And it was very controversial on both sides, to a certain extent.

Frankly, the military doesn't have a good handle on what effect this will have on the force, how the guys who are in the service right now really feel about overturning Don't Ask Don't Tell.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense of - the question I asked Colonel Maginnis, whether there's this is, in part, a generational divide? Is this a divide over personal morality that is reflected in policy considerations? What is your sense of it?

Mr. SHANE: Anecdotally, you know, we do see the generational divide. The folks who are writing into our paper and the folks who we talk to about the issue, you know, the younger generation is more comfortable with the idea of serving alongside an open gay service member. Folks who have been there a little longer have more trouble accepting it - just generally. But frankly, we really don't know. There has been no comprehensive poll.

We don't how much of it is the military culture. We don't know how much of it will be folks who won't re-enlist, who won't enlist in the first place because they don't feel comfortable serving alongside homosexuals.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things that I found curious, and I'm wondering in your reporting on this, we've had difficulty finding people to defend the policy. We've had a very difficult time finding people who are currently serving to defend Don't Ask Don't Tell. And I'm wondering about - if your experience as a reporter is the same.

Mr. SHANE: Yeah. When I was covering this story in the Bush administration, it was a little easier then. Folks felt a little more comfortable speaking out. Now that it seems very clear that President Obama and top military leadership are interested in overturning Don't Ask Don't Tell, a lot of those folks are more reluctant to speak out.

Some of it is the generational divide. But you know, there is certainly a sense that at some point, this will be repealed. And I don't want to be on the record as someone who came out and spoke against it for fear of retribution.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break here, but we are going to continue our discussion about Don't Ask Don't Tell. Our guests are retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Bob Maginnis. He is a supporter of maintaining the policy.

Also with us for additional perspective, Leo Shane. That's who you just heard. He's a reporter for Stars and Stripes newspaper, and he's been covering this issue closely.

Please stay with us, on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a jury deliberated for two weeks in the corruption trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. The result: He was convicted on just one of 24 federal charges. We'll tell you more about it later in the program. And from Detroit, a judge orders former Detroit City councilwoman Monica Conyers to prison to begin serving time on her conviction on corruption charges. We'll have more on that also.

But first, a few more minutes on Don't Ask Don't Tell. Earlier this week, we talked with someone who's believed to be one of the highest-ranking individuals to face discharge under Don't Ask Don't Tell. He's a decorated, 19-year Air Force veteran who says he was outed against his wishes and intention. And we also talked with a top-ranked West Point cadet. They both believe that Don't Ask Don't Tell should be repealed because they say it costs the service too many good people.

Today, for a different perspective, I'm speaking with retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Bob Maginnis, who participated in an Army study group about the issue of gays in the military back in 1993, when Don't Ask Don't Tell was put into place. He's advised the Pentagon about the issue since then. He's also a fellow at the conservative think tank and advocacy group the Family Research Council.

And also with us, Leo Shane. He's been covering the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy closely as a reporter for the Stars and Stripes newspaper.

Colonel Maginnis, I do want to ask about the analogy to racial integration. I mean, we've noted that the polls of the general population show a lot more acceptance of the idea of gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. And of course, we await the results of the survey of service members. But at the time that the armed forces were racially integrated, there were surveys of that as well.

And it showed that the public was, by and large, very much against racial integration of the armed services. And of course, as I think you probably know better than anybody, the services are one of the most successfully integrated institutions in our society, and are held up by - a model of how different people can be taught to work well together. And I understand that you take issue with the analogy. May I ask why?

Lt. Col. MAGINNIS: Yeah. Michel, yeah, it's interesting, back when Colin Powell was the chairman, he said at that time - though, he has, you know, said something different recently - but he said that skin color is benign non-behavioral characteristic, whereas sexual preference is a convenient but invalid statement. And I've sat behind my former commander, who also is an African-American, General Waller, who is now deceased, who was deputy to Schwarzkopf during Desert Storm.

And you know, I had served with him for years and he said, look, he found this an offensive comparison. You know, it's really about behavior. It's not about the melatonin in your skin. The military understands that. We prosecute people for behaviors, not for what they look like. And so I find it an inappropriate comparison, but certainly a convenient one. Now, I do want to at least give some context to what you said earlier.

MARTIN: But can I just ask you - can I just clarify, colonel, it's my understanding that Colin Powell's changed his mind about that.

Lt. Col. MAGINNIS: Well, he's changed his mind about this, and I haven't seen an elaboration of that. He just said, look, he thinks it's time to lift the ban. But that's why I mentioned Colin Powell and many of the other I mean, General Waller and many of the others that disagree. And if you go back to that list of 1,365, you'll find many very senior African-American, retired commanders that agree.

MARTIN: No, I understand. But the reason I raise Colin Powell, because you raised Colin Powell, is that he has changed his mind, and he says with the years of experience, what the policies show that in fact and the fact that society has changed, that the military is not is a separate institution. It does have a different and distinct mission and it has its own culture but it is, in a way, reflective of the values of the larger society. And that's why he says with all the experience that has been gained, that he feels it's no longer needed. That's why I raise that. But tell me why you feel it's not in your view, it's not an apt analogy and I'd like to...

Lt. Col. MAGINNIS: Yeah. I don't believe because it's behavioral versus a benign characteristic, you know. I understand perhaps, even if Colin Powell did not agree with what he said back when he was the chairman, he was taking the advice of the people advising him as the chairman representing the entire force, which I find interesting today with Admiral Mullen, the chairman, having stated on February the 2nd, that he endorses the change. So that's a fundamental difference between chairmen over a 20-year period.

I believe that statement, plus what Mr. Gates said as the secretary, that they're taking their orders from the commander-in-chief, and it's very clear. And so that has chilled the force. When you talk about the survey, perhaps we only have one in four - by a recent press report - participated in that emailed survey.

That tells me that there's a lot of concern out there, perhaps because of confidentiality, or perhaps they don't take the survey seriously - which is going to make it very difficult, as Mr. Gates said, to really engage the force on this particular issue.

MARTIN: Leo, I'm going to give you the last word and ask you just to I'm asking you, what do you think the current thinking is among military leaders? Or have they - are they withholding their judgment on this, pending the delivery of the survey? Because Colonel Maginnis seems to be of the view that it's the train has left the station, and that this survey is really a fig leaf for what the authorities want to do anyway. I'm wondering if you think that - A, is that true? And B, what do you think the current thinking is?

Mr. SHANE: I think - at least among the folks that we've talked to, there is a thought that this seems to be inevitable at this point, that Don't Ask Don't Tell will be overturned sometime in the near future. When the Senate comes back next month, they're expected to vote on the Defense authorization bill, which this is part of.

If they approve it, then the House and the Senate will both have the same language. It really is almost a legislative forgone conclusion at that point. So I think that many in the military are starting to prepare for the idea of openly serving homosexual troops. And I know the top leadership and the DOD has been holding town hall meetings to talk about people's fears and concerns - more on the lines of, you know, what can we do to make it more comfortable for you, rather than asking the question, should we do this or not?

MARTIN: That was Leo Shane, from Stars and Stripes newspaper. He's been covering this issue closely. Also with us from the Pentagon, retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Bob Maginnis. He participated in an Army study group about the issue of gays in the military in 1993. And currently, he's a senior fellow for national security at the Family Research Council. That's a conservative think tank and advocacy group that advances conservative social values.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SHANE: Great, thank you.

Lt. Col. MAGINNIS: Thank you.

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