During the much-awaited, though somewhat anti-climactic, celebrations over the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” much of the policy’s history and details were lost and generally thought not worth remembering—precisely because the policy was now history.
But history teaches valuable lessons, and while the overall policy was grotesque, the devil was really in the details.
What almost all Americans knew as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was really a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue” policy that later was officially enshrined with the additional “Don’t Harass.” The “Don’t Ask” was mostly directed at commanding officers, and the “Don’t Tell” was directed at the closeted gay, lesbian, and bisexual members of the armed forces. But the “Don’t Pursue” was aimed at both commanding officers and others who would and could instigate investigations into a service member’s sexual orientation.
And, as the public and media and politicians generally forgot about the “Don’t Pursue” aspect of the policy, a phenomenon made all the easier by the fact that it was rare for any American to make or hear reference to “Don’t Pursue” (let alone the “Don’t Harass” that was added later), so, too, does it seem like the U.S. military also forgot that it was no longer allowed to “pursue.”
One doesn’t need to sketch out a narrative about how “pursue” was or was not defined, and how it was or was not executed regardless of the definition. The numbers tell the story. The number of discharges, which started at 617 in 1994 (the first full year that the policy was in effect), rose each year to 1,163 in 1998, dipped a bit, and then hit an all-time high of 1,273 in 2001--ironically the year that it became apparent that the United States might need to be picking and choosing who to retain, not who to discharge--based on the possibility of military action in one or more countries.
I suppose one can give the U.S. military some sort of credit for discharges declining almost continuously from 2001 (again, 1,273 that year) to 2010 (261 that year), but one wonders what the discharge numbers would have been had there not been two wars going on--and the U.S. military during that period still managed to discharge valuable specialists such as gay linguists fluent in Arabic! We should not forget that the original policy did include the “out” that the military could retain an openly GLBT person when discharging him or her “would not be in the best interest of the armed forces”; in other words, under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue,” the military was essentially not required to discharge anyone.
One cannot blame the general American public for calling it the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy; after all, few Americans are policy wonks, a decreasing percentage of the U.S. public has active service members or veterans in their immediate families, and it was rare to hear the entire “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue” phrasing anytime, anywhere. (Granted, this is not the law’s official name--the phrase was coined by the late military sociologist Charles Moskos—but essentially no one called the law by its official, legal name, and the nickname was more-or-less accurate, easy to say, and easy to remember.)
Parties outside the military—politicians and the news media, in particular—bear a great deal of blame for the “Don’t Pursue” component being lost. Use of the full popular name would have rhetorically reminded everyone what kind of policy it was supposed to be and that it was not as successful or fair in practice as it could and should have been.
The other major point, besides “Don’t Pursue,” that got lost over the years and hasn’t been much recalled this year, is that the entire “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue” policy was a grand, though not great, compromise. Poor President Bill Clinton thought it would be easier to have openly GLB service members in the U.S. military in 1993 than it had been for President Harry Truman to racially desegregate the U.S. military after World War II. Clinton dramatically underestimated the opposition that such a change would engender, and spent a great deal of political capital early in his presidency on this issue; soon enough, he just wanted the entire topic to just go away, and sheepishly signed on to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue”—which he called an “honorable compromise.”
Though disappointed, some liberals and libertarians and moderate conservatives consoled themselves that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue” was at least incrementally better than the previous policy, which was essentially no tolerance for any GLB service members except, maybe and temporarily during wartime. The truth was that the policy was no improvement, but merely a new perpetuation of the closet.
Thus, more clearly in hindsight (and to many of us obvious from the beginning), the “honorable compromise” was a mistake. There was no real improvement for the GLB community, because “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue” gave cover to anyone--whether liberal, centrist, conservative, or libertarian--who in 1993 and/or since didn’t want to revisit the issue of “gays in the military” any time soon, if at all. And like classrooms in double-wide trailers at public schools, and the federal telephone excise tax in place most of the time since 1898, what was supposedly a temporary measure started looking like it was going to be permanent. In the last few days, weeks, and months, observers have made comments such as, “Who would have guessed this would have stayed in effect for 18 years?” But any student of the history of government--particularly when a government must deal with a controversial social or cultural issue--could tell you that temporary measures (compromise or not, but especially compromises) can end up being in place a long, long time. (See, for example, Plessy v. Ferguson, a compromise of sorts that lasted 58 years.)
The American Civil Liberties Union (both nationally and its state affiliates, such as Nevada) sometimes is criticized for taking positions on issues that some others refer to as “absolute” or “extreme,” but that is because all of Americans’ constitutional rights should be maximized, and compromises should be allowed or made by courts only when necessary. (Nationally, the ACLU opposed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue” from the beginning.) Asking GLB military personnel to lie about their sexual orientation arguably was never militarily necessary—a fact made increasingly clear by at least 42 other countries whose militaries allowed openly GLB service members before the United States got around to it. And not having passed the dishonorable compromise known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue” probably would have gotten us to today sooner, not later.