Mr. President, this is your Harry S. Truman moment.
Last night, in his State of the Union address, President Obama committed to work on repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy which prevents members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community from serving openly in the United States armed forces. In his words: “It is the right thing to do.”
In 1947, then-President Truman issued an executive order that ended racial segregation in the American military. It was unpopular in both the ranks and the electorate yet it was also absolutely the right thing to do. Along with the Marshall Plan and “Containment,” this policy is one of the reasons that Truman is remembered fondly. One would not say that the civil rights movement started with that stroke of the pen, but it certainly helped.
Like Truman’s 1947 decision, President Obama’s decision to end this form of legal discrimination complements our national defense priorities and is in the best traditions of our nation. To deny legal rights of citizens based upon their sexual orientation goes against the most essential values enshrined in our founding documents and is a blight on our national character. For a country founded for the express purpose of guaranteeing the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness it does not follow to grant these rights to only certain people at certain times. It was wrong to deny these rights to slaves; it was wrong to deny these rights to Native Americans; it is wrong to deny these rights to women; it is wrong to deny these rights to newly arrived Americans or immigrants seeking citizenship; and it is wrong to deny these rights to those who identify as LGBT. Serving in the military is one such right.
For members of the American public concerned primarily about this decision’s impact on the “morale of soldiers in the field” I offer these thoughts. I served in the U.S. Army for five years, and I led soldiers in direct fire combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I served honorably and have the decorations to prove it. I am straight and I have no problem whatsoever serving with anyone who identifies as LGBT.
For a nation — in a time of war, no less — to force soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines from the service on account of their sexual orientation is an affront to our nation’s military readiness. Members should only be forcibly separated on account of criminal activity, physical incapability, mental deficiency, domestic, drug or alcohol abuse or continued poor judgment. As any leader of soldiers in combat would say, we want only the most willing and the most capable. Sexual orientation, in my opinion, does not affect ability to serve honorably.
The military prides itself on its history — Bunker Hill in 1775, Gettysburg in 1863, Bellau Wood in 1918, Bastogne in 1944 and Hue City in 1968. The contemporary military has shared similar burdens to these great battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. The unifying factor behind these incidents is that members of the military drew lines in the sand, and let their enemies know that these could not be crossed. These lines separated liberty from tyranny, secessionism and the Constitution, the Republic and monarchy, democracy and despotism. These lines have been preserved by the blood of Americans for centuries. All of those who enjoy their freedoms have the responsibility to remember these sacrifices.
As these sacrifices are remembered, one must ensure that the values protected in these battles are also protected within the ranks of our Armed Forces. Tonight, the President made a commitment to erasing another barrier to full citizenship. His commitment is in the best spirit of the Constitution and in the best interest of national security. It pains me that this decision remains controversial, but the most important decisions often are.
President Truman left office in 1953 with an approval rating in the 30 percent range, but almost no one remembers that. Instead the United States remembers him as a man who made the right choice even when it was the hard choice. Let us hope our current president has the same moral temerity and political courage to finally end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” No matter what happens in 2012, let’s hope we can remember him for this.
Eric Robinson is a first-year graduate student in international relations. He is a veteran of both the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan.