There are those who think the worst thing Colin Powell ever did was to go to the United Nations and present the case for the U.S. to invade Iraq. But I think the worst thing he ever did was when he, as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went to the White House to tell President Bill Clinton to institute "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Clinton was prepared to order the military to allow gays and lesbians to serve, but the Vietnam-era draft dodger couldn't bring himself to stand up to the generals and Powell gave him cover.
In 1948 President Harry Truman, as commander-in-chief, issued an executive order directing the U.S. military to integrate and to abolish all-black units. He didn't ask the generals if they wanted to do it—and in fact they didn't. He didn't ask Congress for permission. He just did it. He ordered his generals, most of whom were World War II heroes, to follow orders.
Truman didn't care. Of course, it took a few years of foot-dragging on the part of the generals, but the armed forces were integrated within four years, some of it spurred by the Korean War.
Here's the irony. It was Truman's courageous decision that allowed Colin Powell to find a path to power, prestige, and prominence, rising to the highest military rank and then to the office of Secretary of State.
It is said that allowing a small number of gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces will be disruptive to unit cohesion and affect morale. That's using rhetoric to disguise bigotry.
As a son of the segregated South, I waltzed into basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1967 and found myself living, working and eating with black soldiers. Sleeping in the same barracks. Yes, using the same showers. You can't imagine the culture shock for some of us. But at the end of eight weeks of training, the black and the white privates were united in a common cause—our hatred of officers, drill instructors, and the goddamn United States Army. Brothers under the skin. Throughout my stateside duty and time in Vietnam, it was apparent that black soldiers made up a disproportionate share of the cannon fodder of the draft army of that era. Indeed, the Vietnam War could not have been fought without black soldiers.
Today there are very few young people entering the military who have not known gays or lesbians, in school, at work, or within their families. I cannot imagine that they feel the same sort of culture shock we did during the 1950s and 1960s coming from a rigid segregationist society to a completely integrated military society.
The public attitude today toward gays and lesbians in the military is in no way the virulent, bigoted attitude of white society toward integration in 1948. This is especially true for the younger population, the age group that enters the military and provides the bulk of our forces. Opposition tends to be among the older population. And, of course, among politicians who are using the issue for their own purposes. Politicians who hide their own bigotry behind high-sounding patriotic rhetoric.
Of course the military has always had homosexual members, so that isn't the issue. The issue is whether they have to hide their identities or suffer dishonorable discharge if discovered. Discharging Arab-speaking intelligence analysts because they are gay is one of the more stupid things the military has done during the war on terrorism.
Congress has begun the process of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The military has asked that the vote be delayed so that the military can "study" how to implement the results.
President Obama needs to assert his rights as commander-in-chief and tell the generals to repeal the policy and "study" how to implement it while they are implementing it. If Congress ratifies his order, that's fine as well. President Bush should never have recognized their interference in his command prerogatives in the first place.
Do it because it's the right thing to do.