“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” Doesn’t Matter In Battle

A British Army veteran explains why the policy makes no sense.


A federal appeals court’s decision to reverse an injunction against the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, means the Pentagon’s ban on openly homosexual service members is again back in full force. This decision seems characteristic of the whole muddled issue.

The fact the policy represented progress for gays in the U.S. military when first implemented is easy to lose sight of, but at the time it prevented witch hunts and overt discrimination. However, things have moved on and it is time the U.S. military caught up with the rest of the world’s militaries.

Gays are not actually banned from being in the military; they just can’t be in the military and admit they are gay. What on earth does that mean as far as the compatibility of being gay with military service? It seems like some sort of existential riddle – you are fine as you are, but you just can’t say what you are.

I find the issue particularly relevant, having served in the British military for nine years. If there is one lesson I have learned, there are many issues far more deserving of attention within the military than a soldier’s sexuality. Most importantly, whether a soldier is good or bad, has absolutely nothing to do with whether they are gay or straight.

The British military allows gays to openly serve.  Indeed, this has not caused the British Army to collapse. I left it with concerns, not one of those remotely connected to the issue of soldier’s sexual orientation, yet at the same time still very proud to have worked in arguably one of the finest and most professional military forces in the world.

Proponents of the ban argue that a straight soldier would be worried about the gay soldier being attracted to them and making a move. If that is the case then why not any concern about the laws of attraction between female and male soldiers who work together? What is the difference with them? Women serve effectively in the military, alongside their male comrades, something I witnessed in a Kosovo tour in the former Yugoslavia in 2002, two Iraq tours in 2004 and 2006 and an Afghanistan tour in 2009.

At this point, the issue of the “front line” tends to be thrown in. This argument suggests the potential problems caused by heterosexual attraction are not so problematic, because they are not on the front line together. Rather, they tend to mix and work together within logistic, administration and medical units, where the situations faced are not as perilous and complicated as the front line. This creed is maintained by the fact most country’s front line infantry and cavalry units are only made up of male soldiers.

However, this argument does not work anymore. The fact is, for years in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, male and female soldiers have been working and fighting on the front line together, in close proximity. Logistical convoys, made up of male and female soldiers from logistical units have to travel through hostile areas, where they are regularly attacked by the enemy. In Afghanistan I would hear of young female logistic soldiers reduced to tears, after attending  briefings for convoys about to go out, in which they were briefed from their officers to expect the worse from the enemy.

Female medics accompany most infantry patrols that go out on the ground, working under fire with their male compatriots.

Female pilots fly Apache attack helicopters and fighter jets, supporting troops in the midst of the most intense sort of front line action. There are many soldiers I know who will forever be  thankful to the female pilots of British Apache helicopters who enabled them to extract from Taliban ambushes, as well as thankful to the female pilots of U.S. F-18 and A-10 fighter jets for the same reason.

In these instances, all manage to leave the issue of sexual attraction aside, staying focused and professional. No one would suggest there might be a problem if a female Apache helicopter pilot responds to troops in battle, as the soldier on the radio speaking to the pilot might get distracted and start hitting on her. Why should this be any different with straight and openly gay soldiers working together?

There is a mixture of people who oppose gays serving openly in the military. Some are simply homophobes, who dress up the real reasons for their objections with the usual talk of “morale and discipline.” At the end of the day, they are entitled to their opinion that being gay is wrong, as bigoted as that may be.

However, they are not entitled to make a logical step between their opinion; and the fact being gay therefore makes you an unprofessional or incompetent soldier. Sorry guys, that does not work. Believe it or not, just as you can have competent gay mechanics, gay chefs, or gay scientists, you can also have competent and very professional gay soldiers. You can even have gay battlefield interpreters who accompany troops on the frontlines.

During my 2004 tour in Al Amarah, Iraq, we had attached a brave and competent young Englishman, whose Arabic was good enough to act as an interpreter. He was involved in more fire fights with the enemy than I was, never giving a hint he should not go out with a patrol or be put in harm’s way. He is now living happily with his male partner back in England. That he has been under fire more times than many of the military old guard who disapprove of gays in the military or support the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy makes me smile at the irony to say the least.

Another sort opposed are those involved or connected with the military, who may be homophobic as well, or even if not, believe that being openly gay is not conducive with an effective military. I think their slanted view is affected by an obsession with the military as a mythically noble enterprise, with a fixation on “maintaining” traditional values such as honor, virtue, integrity and courage. They see the military through rose tinted spectacles, seeing its use in war as an efficient, slick machine, which openly gay soldiers would clash with.

This is a ridiculous and naïve view. Values such as honor, virtue, integrity and especially courage do indeed apply to the military and need to, but proponents of the ban are applying those values in the wrong place. There is no intrinsic honor in war fighting. It is a messy, dirty and tragic business, which my final tour in Afghanistan brought home to me. The ongoing controversy about how the U.S. military covered up the death of Pat Tillman seems particularly relevant to this point.

What honor there might be lies between those who fight together, how they conduct themselves in the heat of the moment, how they treat civilians. Whether they are gay or straight makes not a blind bit of difference.

The sooner this obsession with notions of honor, nobility and courage being attributed to fighting is addressed, the sooner gays in the military will be able to work as effectively as everyone else. Furthermore, the sooner everyone will be better off, with a more realistic and grounded view of what it means to be at war.

Just say “don’t ask, don’t tell” to yourself. Is it me, or does that sound like something that would be understandable only if said on an elementary school playground? Whereas it seems a serious cause for concern, when it is being used as a rule by the world’s largest and most powerful military, while it is conducting war fighting.

I feel for all soldiers who have to deal with the friction and confusion of current military operations. I especially feel for those soldiers who have to deal with the added and unnecessary friction, which is induced by this outdated policy.


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