Is Wartime a Time to End Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?

As the Obama Administration moves (slowly) toward repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, one argument in opposition is that the nation is at war, and fundamental changes in the military should not take place during wartime.  One response to that point is that all hands are needed during heightened military deployments, and it harms American national security to dismiss trained soldiers.  But there is a more fundamental reason why the argument against change during wartime doesn’t work:  there is no end in sight to the war on terror.  And endless war cannot be a reason for permanent stasis in military policy.

The no-change-during-wartime argument is an example of conventional thinking about war and American society.  “Wartime” is imagined to be a temporary condition.  It is a special kind of time.  Wartime, by definition, is preceded and followed by “peacetime.”  American history is thought to consist of the movement from peacetime to wartime and back again.  In this conceptualization, wartimes always comes to an end.

This idea that wartime is by definition a temporary time is an essential ingredient of the argument that social change shouldn’t happen in wartime.  This is presented as an argument that does not challenge change itself, but simply asks advocates of change to be patient.  Change can come after the war is over.

But what if there is no end to war?

United States military deployment overseas has been on-going since at least World War II.  There is a disconnect between persistent American military engagement and the idea that “peacetimes” continue to exist, reflected in an awkward literature on war in “postwar” America.  David Halberstam, for example, gave his book about war during the first Bush and the Clinton administrations the ironic title War in a Time of Peace.

Desegregation of the armed services is an example of social change during a time of military engagement, not during “peacetime.”  Although V-E and V-J days had long passed by the time President Truman issued an executive order calling for military desegregation in 1948, World War II itself had not formally come to a close.  The U.S. occupied Germany, Japan and other nations, and the Supreme Court continued to uphold exercises of Congress’s war power.  World War II slid into the Cold War, which included the use of the Air Force during the 1948 Berlin Airlift.  And as has been widely noted, desegregation was accomplished in the Army in the context of the need for ground troops in the Korean War.

Even if we could find ways to bound previous wars in time, the “war on terror” has been defined in a way that confounds the idea of an end point.  It is not a war against a nation-state but against an ideology, suggesting that this state of war might only end when we reach an end of ideas themselves.

The Supreme Court has acknowledged the difficulty of our current war era’s temporality. Guantánamo detainees might be held for the duration of the conflict.  But, as Justice Kennedy suggested in Boumediene v. Bush, the present conflict, “if measured from September 11, 2001, to the present, is already among the longest wars in American history.”

In the context of endless war, an argument that change must wait for peacetime is not an argument for patience.  It should be understood for what it is:  an argument to keep discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military in place.  Scholars have often argued, however, that wartime has been the context for the expansion of equality rights.  In that sense, expanding equality for gays and lesbians during wartime would not be an aberration, but instead would be in keeping with American tradition.

Mary L. Dudziak

Mary L. Dudziak is Judge Edward J. and Ruey L. Guirado Professor of Law, History and Political Science, University of Southern California, and a contributor to Legal History Blog. Her most recent book is Exporting American Dreams: Thurgood Marshall’s African Journey (Oxford, 2008). This article originally appeared at Legal History Blog.

Republished with permission from the History News Network.


  1. MyLeftMind says

    As a veteran, I can assure you that there are plenty of gay people who want to and do serve in the military, and they serve with honor. While anti-gay bigots push for continued oppression on the grounds that honesty and openness would somehow destroy troop cohesion, forcing gay and lesbian service members to hide their sexual identity is even more antithetical to military readiness.

    With the recent high profile discharges of highly trained, essential military personnel (such as Arabic translators and fighter pilots like decorated war hero Lt. Col. Fehrenbach we spent about $25 Million training over the years), it’s clear the Obama Administration has to do something to stop the drain of resources. More than 12,500 service men and women have been discharged on the basis of sexual orientation since the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was implemented, at a cost of over $360 million. This abhorrent witch-hunt policy has unnecessarily ruined the careers of over 13, 000 Americans and deprived our military of many highly trained and much needed men and women. For the overall struggle of gay equality (and the respect and dignity that come with equal legal treatment), this policy does nothing less than send the blatantly false message by our government to the entire American citizenry that honest gay people cannot reasonably be expected to conduct themselves in a professional manner, thereby contributing to our dehumanization in this society as beings who are nothing but our sexuality.

    When and if this policy is ever repealed (note the built in loopholes for Obama & the Pentagon), it will show anti-gay conservatives to be once again the hysterics and fear-mongers that they are and, who knows, that might even get some people thinking that maybe they’re equally wrong and hysterical about gay rights in general.

    But LGBT citizens face an even larger problem with the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Repealing DADT is important, but the Democratic Party and our progressive agenda pays an even higher price for lack of action on gay rights. As long as the marriage equality issue is left unresolved, the right wing will use it as a fundraiser and a Get Out The Vote strategy. If Obama and the Dems would repeal DOMA and give equal rights for states that allow same sex marriage, the issue would be over. States that refuse to marry gays will still do so for the next 10-50 years, but same sex couples will simply get married in states that offer marriage equality. And this hot button issue will be mostly put to rest, so we can focus our energy on fixing the economy and the environment without the gay issue motivating the right wing religious base to vote against us.

  2. GaryH says

    The USA military will change the rules based on need.
    “Rosie the Riverter” being one example, the military will accept gay people or women depending on the need for troops.

    Surprise, surprise…. !

    Troops are in demand so they want to ease restrictions of gays in the military. It won’t be the first time.


  3. Marshall says

    This is true in field or combat locations. The field grade officers usually shower alone, company grade officers usually shower in community showers as do the enlisted personal. Male and female showers are offered. How and who will shower with whom in this new world so many want to make? How many of them shower in groups, I did in Germany and Viet Nam. Who would like to shower with another person who may see you as a possible sex partner??? I have no problem serving with gay males or females but how do we do the shower thing?? Just ask the enlisted people and go with what ever they say.

  4. says

    This is a most cogent and reasoned article. At least two of its points, which already bear emphasis as they are, are in fact understated, so I have appended comment:

    “In the context of endless war, an argument that change must wait for peacetime is not an argument for patience. It should be understood for what it is: an argument to keep discrimination…”. Indeed, it is an argument to keep any invidious feature of the status quo!

    “Even if we could find ways to bound previous wars in time, the “war on terror” has been defined in a way that confounds the idea of an end point. It is not a war against a nation-state but against an ideology, suggesting that this state of war might only end when we reach an end of ideas themselves.”

    Actually, it is even more than a war on just an ideology. It is a deliberately fuzzed war against sometimes a kind of tactic (terror), sometimes several similar ideologies (jihadism – for totalitarianism or annihilation in the name of Islam), and sometimes actual nation states or power centers within them (Iraq, Taliban).

    By always seeking out enemies-du-jour, the OBushma administrations have elected endless war. However, the endlessness of the war does not depend on USA policy. No matter what the USA does or doesn’t do now, some of the enemies (rapture-seeking jihadists) really are implacable and totally dedicated to their own agendas, which require endless struggle until their total victory or destruction.


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