Since the moment the issue was resolved with the establishment of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, it has received only occasional notice in the public eye.
I served as commandant of the Marine Corps when this matter was initially raised as an issue, and I participated in crafting the "don't ask, don't tell" rule. Having monitored its implementation during my remaining years of active service, and watching it in the four years since, I feel compelled to comment. I strongly disagree with claims that the policy does not work and that it has been misused by the military to conduct so-called "witch hunts" for the purpose of rooting out homosexuals.
The policy euphemistically dubbed "don't ask, don't tell" was designed to accommodate President Clinton's directive that gays and lesbians be able to serve in the armed forces under a plan that met the special requirements of military service.
The policy has been remarkably successful in maintaining that balance, for the goal was quite challenging. Like it or not, it is a simple fact that the presence of avowed homosexuals in a military organization is fundamentally incompatible with good order and discipline.
Why? First, because the young Americans who join our military services bring with them the values of our society, and that society has not, to date, fully recognized the social acceptability of the homosexual lifestyle.
When we recruit from a society whose people express in this way that gays and lesbians are beyond the mainstream of American culture, why should we expect our servicemen and servicewomen to believe differently?
Second, the military is unlike most other institutions. Its purpose is not to turn a profit, nor to provide an environment for individuality or self-expression like a university. The military exists to protect the nation by winning wars. Victory in combat calls for a unique combination of cohesion, selflessness and teamwork.
Conduct that is widely rejected by a majority of Americans can undermine the trust that is essential to creating and maintaining the sense of unity that is critical to the success of a military organization operating under the very different and difficult demands of combat.
It would be unconscionable to tolerate increased risk to our men and women in uniform simply for the sake of satisfying the desires of one special-interest group.
Let me address claims that military commanders have twisted the "don't ask, don't tell" policy into an instrument for anti-gay activities.
Consider the facts. Over the past five years, the Marine Corps, to cite one example, has effected 387 discharges under the policy. Of this number, 289 - 75 percent of the total - were based upon voluntary admission of homosexuality. These individuals were neither sought out nor pursued. They openly purported themselves to be homosexuals, in contravention of the policy's proscription against acknowledging homosexual persuasion.
Further, 191 discharges, or 49 percent, occurred within the first six months of service, a very demanding period during which it is not uncommon for those who are not equal to the challenge of military life to seek opportunities for release from the service. A claim to be homosexual, factual or not, provides such an opportunity.
A final note. In 1993, I received a great number of communications from a broad spectrum of Americans. Parents wrote to say that if the policy of open homosexuality were put into effect, they wanted their sons and daughters discharged. The mother of a recruit awaiting orders to active duty sent me her son's enlistment contract to be torn up because "he's not going."
Former Marines wrote in numbers to demand that I resign in protest if open homosexuals were allowed to serve. The decorated, upward-bound Marine officer who stopped an Israeli tank with his cocked .45 pistol during the tense days of the 1980s in Lebanon resigned his commission in protest over Clinton's stance. Three general officers and several senior noncommissioned officers communicated their gut-wrenching decision to step down should an unqualified policy be put in place.
Noting that the armed services today are under extreme pressure to find adequate numbers of recruits, if the lessons of 1993 are instructive, an aggressive change in policy could have a significant impact on their ability to maintain adequate strength.
Carl E. Mundy served as the commandant of the Marine Corps from 1991 to 1995. This first appeared in the New York Times.