In Support Of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

On Tuesday, we heard from a military group that supports the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell. Today, NPR's Melissa Block talks to Retired Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, who has an opposing view.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Yesterday on the program we heard from a military group that supports the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Today, an opposing view from retired Lieutenant Colonel Robert Maginnis. He was part of a Pentagon group that helped craft the policy banning openly gay men and women from the military back in 1993. Colonel Maginnis, welcome to the program.

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

BLOCK: And what's your main argument of why Don't Ask, Don't Tell should remain military policy?

Lt. Col. MAGINNIS: In '93, we looked specifically at unit effectiveness. We looked at readiness and we looked at family issues related to open homosexuality. That particular report went to the Congress. They were compelled to draft a very tough exclusion policy.

And as a result of that, we have what today is affectionately referred to so-called Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which of course is somewhat different, actually, from the exclusion law because it's a double pretense. It says the Pentagon will pretend it doesn't care that homosexuals serve and that a homosexual has to pretend that they're not homosexual, which I think is ridiculous on both parts.

BLOCK: Do you think the conclusions that you drew 17 years ago still apply today?

Lt. Col. MAGINNIS: Nothing's changed about the military's mission in 17 years. Admittedly, the culture is far more permissive and understanding of homosexuality. But after all, in the time of two wars, we need to be prudent about this. What are we jeopardizing if we move forward on this particular repeal? And what's it going to do to retention? What's it going to do to recruitment? What's it going to do to unit effectiveness?

BLOCK: You talked about unit effectiveness and readiness, especially now at a time of two wars. And I wanted to play you a view that we heard yesterday on the program. We heard from Alex Nicholson, who's with the group Service Members United, which is a group of gay and lesbian troops and veterans who are fighting Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And he talked about this point. Let's take a listen.

Mr. ALEX NICHOLSON (Service Members United): We know that in times of conflict the number of discharges drop significantly. You've seen, if you look at the statistics, a significant drop of almost half after 9/11. Then another drop of almost half after the Iraq War began in 2003.

And so, we know that in times of conflict, commanders are looking the other way despite the fact that the rationale for the law is that in times of conflict, especially the presence of a known gay man or woman in the military is detrimental to unit cohesion morale and combat readiness.

BLOCK: So, Colonel Maginnis, he seems to be saying in practice it isn't working that way during wartime.

Lt. Col. MAGINNIS: Well, keep in mind, commanders are rather busy during wartime and not chasing after people to administratively discharge. But at the same time, you know, we've had this policy in place for a long time - 17 years in this particular section of the policy. People are more privy to that and therefore are going to hide. They understand there are consequences for being exposed and therefore, you know, they're not going to acknowledge their homosexuality because they want to stay in the military perhaps.

BLOCK: And do you think public opinion should be relevant? I mean by a 2-to-1 margin, Americans favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.

Lt. Col. MAGINNIS: Actually, I tend to agree with what Secretary Gates said on the issue. And that is that you need to engage the force to find out their opinion about this because, after all, this is an all-volunteer force. If in fact they are alienated by a decision like this to repeal, then they could walk. And who are you going to backfill?

If you look demographically at who fills the armed forces today, they typically are out of the South and the mountain west. They typically are religious conservative and they also come from families with a history of military service. That's a very, very miniscule minority in this country. You alienate the very people that make up the all-volunteer force, then Congress has a much larger problem, that is, going back to conscription.

I had no idea how many people would leave if you repeal the law, however, that's a risk that we take if we move forward on this.

BLOCK: Colonel Maginnis, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Lt. Col. MAGINNIS: Well, thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert Maginnis, who played an advisory role in the creation of Don't Ask, Don't Tell back in 1993.

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