A member of the military in active service forwards the following comments while asking that his identity be shielded:
Lieutenant General Benjamin Mixon was taken to the woodshed last week by the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. Mixon’s offense was a letter to the editor of Stars and Stripes. General Mixon wrote:
The recent commentaries on the adverse effects of repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy were insightful.
It is often stated that most servicemembers are in favor of repealing the policy. I do not believe that is accurate. I suspect many servicemembers, their families, veterans and citizens are wondering what to do to stop this ill-advised repeal of a policy that has achieved a balance between a citizen’s desire to serve and acceptable conduct.
Now is the time to write your elected officials and chain of command and express your views. If those of us who are in favor of retaining the current policy do not speak up, there is no chance to retain the current policy.
Letters to the editor of this type seem to be permitted by Department of Defense policy. DoD Directive 1344.10 states, in part:
A member of the Armed Forces on active duty may…[w]rite a letter to the editor of a newspaper expressing the member’s personal views on public issues or political candidates, if such action is not part of an organized letter-writing campaign or a solicitation of votes for or against a political party or partisan political cause or candidate. If the letter identifies the member as on active duty (or if the member is otherwise reasonably identifiable as a member of the Armed Forces), the letter should clearly state that the views expressed are those of the individual only and not those of the Department of Defense (or Department of Homeland Security for members of the Coast Guard).
As commander of U.S. Army Pacific, General Mixon should have made clear that he was expressing his personal opinions in his letter to the editor. Also, it would have been better for him to write to a private newspaper like Army/Navy/Air Force Times, rather than Stars and Stripes, which is published by the Department of Defense, but editorially separate from it. For good measure, he could have encouraged people on both sides of the issue to speak out. After all, American Forces Network (sort of the television version of Stars and Stripes) runs public service announcements encouraging servicemembers to vote and to write their Congressperson without fear of reprisal.
Was this controversy all about General Mixon’s failure to include a disclaimer in his letter? Probably not. If there was a danger of General Mixon’s letter having a chilling effect on his subordinates, some may say the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff chilled free expression even more with their response.
Secretary Gates said that it was “inappropriate” for “an active duty officer to comment on an issue like this….” Admiral Mullen indicated that the chain of command had been given “very specific direction” in writing not to make a comment on the issue. Some may say that Gates and Mullen chilled free expression by not distinguishing between a three-star general opposing Pentagon policy in a DoD newspaper and a lieutenant or ensign expressing a similar opinion. And the cryptic “very specific direction” calls into question whether polls and congressional testimony are an accurate reflection of military opinion, or if the responders are just following orders. It will be interesting to see if the press requests the “very specific direction” via the Freedom of Information Act.
One problem with poll data is that they ask whether gays should be “allowed to serve openly.” This is probably because the military policy (that implements the statute now being debated) focuses on conduct rather than orientation. So a person can have a homosexual orientation so long as he or she does not engage in a homosexual statement (e.g., “I am gay”), homosexual act (self-explanatory), or homosexual marriage. The poll question about “serving openly” seems to address only the “statement” portion of the policy, which is probably the most controversial of the three prongs. If pollsters asked whether troops should be able to engage in homosexual acts while on active duty, there might be a different result.
The irony is that those who disagree with the proposed changes are being asked to “vote with [their] feet” and leave the military, according to Admiral Mullen. One of the arguments against the homosexual conduct policy is that we lose qualified men and women simply because of a statement they have made. Apparently General Mixon (and this author) can stay in the military if he keeps his opinions private. But shouldn’t General Mixon be allowed to serve openly?