Wars are riddled with all kinds of twisted ironies. During the Civil War, the Union army initially spurned blacks who it was crusading to emancipate—while the Confederate army recruited them in the final desperate hours of its fight to enslave them. In World War II, the United States sacrificed about half a million American soldiers to defeat Nazi racism. Yet the U.S. itself practiced strict racial segregation, including within its military.
Given such blatant historic contradictions, it seems like no big deal that now, while the U.S. valiantly tries to plant tolerant liberal regimes in Islamic countries, at home it harbors among the most intolerant policies toward gays in the military in the Western world. But just as with abolition and desegregation, equal rights for gays is an idea whose time is way overdue—especially the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell," the policy that bars known gays from serving in the military. The question is whether President Barack Obama will lead the way to its repeal—as he promised he would during his campaign—or back-pedal to political safety, as he seems to be doing.
America's NATO allies, with the exception of Turkey and a few others, allow gays in the military. And the cause of gay rights on the whole has made major strides in the U.S., notwithstanding the California Supreme Court's recent refusal to overturn Prop 8, the ballot initiative Golden State voters approved that bars gay marriage. Five states have legalized gay marriage, including, recently, Iowa—hardly a cornucopia of radical activism. And upward of 75 percent of the general public favors the repeal of Don't Ask.
However, 1,000 retired military officials recently sent a letter to the president urging him to stand by Don't Ask. They say that the military's sole purpose is to wage and win wars, and that requires military cohesiveness. To foster that, they insist, the military needs flexibility to set its own rules even if these rules are at odds with fundamental constitutional values and social trends.
There is no constitutional right to serve in the military, they maintain—and about that, they are certainly right. But that doesn't mean that the military should simply ignore basic constitutional protections, not to mention the demands of ordinary justice, absent an actual showing of harm. So the real issue is, does the empirical evidence, from home and abroad, support the claims that allowing gays to serve openly would undermine military performance?
Although the research on this question tends to be dominated by activists, still, the answer is: No.
Even on its own terms, Don't Ask was a particularly dumb policy because it lifted the ban on gay service but barred them from officially admitting their status. This meant that the country compromised its commitment to equal protection and still exposed itself to what the military says is potential harm from the gay presence, maximizing the damage on all fronts. If there is an upside to the law, it is that 16 years hence it is apparent that in fact there is no upside to keeping gays out or relegating them to the closet.
If the presence of gay soldiers were disruptive for the military, tolerance for gays would be falling among troops. In fact, post-Don't Ask, tolerance has gone up significantly. A 2006 Zogby poll of returning Iraq and Afghanistan vets found that 72 percent were "personally comfortable" around gays. This is significant not only because it is in line with broader public opinion, but it reflects their experience with known gays among NATO troops.
Nor does the evidence from other countries suggest that the heavens will fall if Don't Ask is scrapped. Take Israel, for instance. Unlike the United States, it never actively barred gays, thanks to conscription—but it restricted avowed gays from serving in top positions or sensitive intelligence jobs.
Israel's military hasn't become a ragamuffin force since it lifted these restrictions in 1993. It remains among the best fighting forces in the world. Indeed, a 2001 study by Aaron Belkin and Melissa Levitt of the University of California, Santa Barbara's Palm Center, which studies sexual minorities in the military, found no evidence that allowing known gays to serve in top jobs has diminished performance. Gay rights opponents dismiss this research on grounds that the Palm Center is a front for gay advocates. But the U.S. government's own General Accounting Office took an in-depth look at four gay-tolerant countries in 1993 and found no ill-effects on their militaries either. Likewise, another 1993 study by the Rand Corp. found "no direct evidence regarding the effects of the presence of acknowledged homosexuals on unit cohesion and unit performance."
Indeed, so mainstream has the idea of an integrated force become in Israel that a 2002 film, Yossi & Jagger, depicting the travails and triumphs of a closet gay commander in love with a soldier in his unit, was not only a big hit with the public, it also received official military screenings. "Gay presence has become a total non-issue for the Israeli army," says Yossi Shain, a commentator and political scientist at the Tel Aviv University.
Similarly, England—whose military nine years ago was forced, kicking and screaming, by courts to include gays—has now seamlessly assimilated them—so much so that most younger Brits can't even understand what the big fuss was to begin with.
Repealing Don't Ask won't hand gays a license to turn the military into a hub of gay activity, as some conservatives no doubt fear. There are, after all, better ways of getting a date than going through boot camp. Its repeal will simply protect gays from being penalized for admitting that they are gay. Rules against sexual fraternization—both among homosexuals and heterosexuals—will still remain in place, meaning that troops will have plenty of reason to maintain decorum and discretion. Gay Israeli soldiers apparently don't go around flaunting their sexuality even though there isn't any official penalty for doing so.
But while both public opinion—and evidence—are lining up in favor of repealing Don't Ask, President Obama is going in the opposite direction. The White House's civil rights Web site in recent weeks has significantly watered down the strong language it was using to signal its commitment to scrapping the law. Even more troubling, Obama did nothing—not so much as utter a whisper of protest—when West Point grad Dan Choi, an Iraq veteran and an Arab linguist, was fired recently for revealing that he was gay.
President Obama is pleading for time to push this issue until after, presumably, he has averted global warming, revived the economy, and implemented universal health coverage. But to backburner a major civil rights cause for which the country is ready, and that is well within his power to advance, in order to save the world first, bespeaks a profound megalomania.
He ought to get his priorities straight.
Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a biweekly columnist for Forbes. This article originally appeared at Forbes.