Wednesday, December 22, 2010

DADT > History

“This is done,” President Obama said at 9:36 this morning in Washington, with three words ushering into history a law that should never have been, ushering in the most important and potentially transformative civil rights law since the civil rights era, and the most pivotal law governing the identity of our armed forces since the Truman administration.

The president signed the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, which for 17 years established an official pretext for a reinforced personal self-denial of identity for tens of thousands of gay and lesbian Americans who suffered in silence in the U.S. military.

“So this morning, I am proud to sign a law that will bring an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Obama said at the ceremony in the auditorium of Interior Department headquarters, amid a crowd that imparted the raucous brio of a football game. “This law I’m about to sign will strengthen our national security and uphold the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend.

“No longer will our country be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans who were forced to leave the military -– regardless of their skills, no matter their bravery or their zeal, no matter their years of exemplary performance -– because they happen to be gay. No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder, in order to serve the country that they love.

“ ... I want to speak directly to the gay men and women currently serving in our military. For a long time your service has demanded a particular kind of sacrifice. You’ve been asked to carry the added burden of secrecy and isolation. And all the while, you’ve put your lives on the line for the freedoms and privileges of citizenship that are not fully granted to you. ...

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“There will never be a full accounting of the heroism demonstrated by gay Americans in service to this country; their service has been obscured in history. It’s been lost to prejudices that have waned in our own lifetimes. But at every turn, every crossroads in our past, we know gay Americans fought just as hard, gave just as much to protect this nation and the ideals for which it stands.

“There can be little doubt there were gay soldiers who fought for American independence, who consecrated the ground at Gettysburg, who manned the trenches along the Western Front, who stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima. Their names are etched into the walls of our memorials. Their headstones dot the grounds at Arlington.

“And so, as the first generation to serve openly in our Armed Forces, you will stand for all those who came before you, and you will serve as role models to all who come after.”

The American president most directly a beneficiary of the civil rights era helped make his contribution to the legacy of that era. “Clearly, this is a day that is not unlike the momentous occasion when we mark the March on Washington in 1963, or the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965,” said the historian Manning Marable of Columbia University, on MSNBC. “We have broken yet another barrier that restricts the boundaries of democracy ... this step was long overdue.”

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The road to get here was a long one. As an American institution, the military is more resistant to change than most anything else. Obama’s repeal of DADT was the first mandated seismic shift in the actual identity of our soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen since President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, racially integrating the United States armed forces in July 1948.

For months Obama got considerable grief from progressives and activists, who took note of the fact that Obama could have cut to the chase of the roiling debate over gays and lesbians in the military and, like Truman, issued an executive order that would have dictated the repeal. Obama realized, among other things, that such a commandment, suddenly made during wartime and without deliberation from the heads of the branches of service, would do more harm than good.

In February, The Wall Street Journal, citing the findings of University of Wisconsin political science professor Kenneth Mayer, reported that an executive order was never really an option for Obama. Changing DADT, said the Journal, “likely requires congressional action because the law is currently codified in a federal statute, 10 U.S.C. Sec. 654.”

“Therefore, repealing the DADT policy would not change the existing law that bans individuals from military service for saying they are homosexual and/or engaging in homosexual conduct. Congress would have to repeal the law."

Obama, logically, made the decision that since DADT was essentially institutionalized by Congress, it should most naturally be repealed by the body that made it law in the first place. That fact that it happened exactly that way today, with support from Senate Republicans, ratifies that judgment.

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There’s more steps to take. Bureaucracy being what it is, DADT doesn’t die immediately. First, Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen have to certify that they’ve reviewed the Pentagon’s recent report on the impact of DADT’s repeal, and that I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed on the various repeal regulations needed to make the change a reality. Once that certification is delivered, in writing, a 60-day waiting period must pass before DADT officially dies the death.

But that’s all right. That’ll pass quickly. We know where we’re going on this. Forward, into the future. This nation had another Rubicon moment 25 months ago, when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States.

“The real moments of American self-discovery can’t be withdrawn or undone or reversed on appeal,” I wrote in January 2009. “Obama’s inauguration ... was one such moment.”

This is another one.

Image credits: Obama signs DADT repeal: Chuck Kennedy/The White House. Obama: White House pool. Chicago Defender Truman deseg order front page: © 1948, 2010 Chicago Defender. Joe Biden and Obama: via MSNBC.

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