The U.S. military has taken a step forward on one issue while coming to parade rest on another. The Navy recently announced plans to let women serve on submarines, but top military leaders have called for more time and study before permitting gays to serve openly in their ranks.
The change in submarine policy is a positive step. Women have been serving on surface ships since 1993. Letting them into the ranks of the century-old, elite submarine force is good for the Navy and the country. This opens a new pool of potential talent, gives women another opportunity to advance and demonstrates U.S. commitment to freedom and fairness.
This change has been pushed by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told a Senate committee last month it is time to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell'' law regarding gays in the military. Even former Vice President Dick Cheney recently sounded open to the prospect. "It's partly a generational question," he said, adding "things have changed significantly" since "don't ask, don't tell'' took effect.
But the Brass Quartet that came before Congress recently were more hesitant, supporting more study and warning that a hasty repeal could make it harder on the military while it is fighting two wars. Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, went further, saying the current system works and should not be changed.
Certainly, defense must be paramount. But there is evidence that this change will not be disruptive and need not be the subject of lengthy delay. The New York Times reported that a study by the Palm Center, a think tank focused on sexual minorities in the military, looked at the experiences of Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa and other nations. The center found that most made the transition within a matter of months with little trouble.
With the nation at war, those leading the troops may be understandably wary of introducing an unpredictable social change in battlefield conditions. If they need a little time to assess the implications of the change, to consider the experience of other militaries, in order to put their minds at ease and get fully behind the change, that is worthwhile. The tone is set from the top. But there are already gays in the military and probably always have been. Acknowledging them and moving on would demonstrate to the world the U.S. commitment to freedom and fairness.