The commanders of the U.S. military services expressed concern this week about President Barack Obama's desire to change the law to allow homosexuals to serve openly in their forces. The senior officers said they will follow whatever laws and orders come their way, but each was cautious when asked whether he thinks the plan is a good idea.
The Obama administration announced early this month it would conduct a nearly year-long study to determine the potential impact of a change in the law, and how to best implement such a change. With that approach, the president hopes to avoid the backlash among senior military officers that President Bill Clinton experienced when he tried to end the ban on open homosexuals 17 years ago.
Congressional hearings this week provided the first opportunity to hear from today's military service chiefs on the plan. "I do have serious concerns about the impact of the repeal of the law on a force that is fully engaged in two wars and has been at war for eight-and-a-half years." said General George Casey, chief of the U.S. Army, by far the largest U.S. military service.
He told the Senate Armed Services Committee he just does not have enough information about the potential impact of a change in the law on his force's readiness and effectiveness.
"I fully support what Secretary Gates has laid out. I will fully participate in that. And then I feel I can provide my informed military judgments to the secretary of defense, the president and to Congress," said the general.
The commander of the other U.S. ground combat force, the Marine Corps, was also cautious. General James Conway told the House Armed Services Committee he also supports the study plan, but hopes its results are driven by military concerns, rather than political or social ones.
"I would encourage your work, mine and that of the working group to be focused on a central issue, and that is the readiness of the armed forces of the United States to fight this nation's wars," he said. "My concern would be if somehow that central purpose and focus were to become secondary to the discussion because that is what your armed forces is all about."
The Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, was more specific about his concerns.
"This is not the time to perturb the force that is, at the moment, stretched by demands in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere without careful deliberation," he said.
The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, was also cautious, saying the United States should not base its decisions on old data or rely on information about other militaries that have allowed homosexuals to serve openly, but rather should do a current survey of U.S. troops and their families.
"Only with that information can we talk about the force that we have, not someone else's, not another country's, about the United States Navy, in my case," he said.
The caution and concerns expressed by the four service chiefs stand in contrast to the endorsement of the president's view by the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, when the study plan was announced on February second.
"It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do," he said. "No matter how I look at this issue, I can not escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy that forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, personally, it comes down to integrity - theirs as individuals and ours as an institution."
Admiral Mullen was referring to the current law known as 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' which enables homosexuals to serve in the U.S. military only if they keep their sexual preference secret. But the admiral acknowledged he needs more information to determine exactly how to proceed, and that view does coincide with the service chiefs' concerns about the impact of a change on their forces.
"I am not all-knowing in terms of the impact, and any impact and understanding readiness and effectiveness is absolutely critical," he said.
Admiral Mullen is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but he is not actually the commander of the forces or the boss of the service chiefs. He is the senior military adviser to the president and the secretary of defense. As such, he has tremendous influence on policy and also on the nearly two-and-a-half million men and women in the U.S. armed forces. He said his strong public statement was "about leadership," and so far he has not experienced any strong reaction from the troops, at least not in public appearances.
But the process is just beginning, and it will likely be late this year before the defense department's working group determines whether and how the U.S. military can implement President Obama's desire to end the ban on open service by homosexuals. Even then, actually changing the law will require an act of Congress, which appears to be deeply divided on the issue.