Chairman: Officers Who Support DADT Can Resign

Update: The Army announced that General Mixon will not be reprimanded.

LtGen Benjamin R. Mixon, commanding general of US Army Pacific, previously wrote a letter to the editor encouraging servicemembers to “speak up” about their views on the potential repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  His letter was used as the second example of an active duty officer publicly disagreeing with the proposed change, when he said

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.

This was particularly salient, because, as the General pointed out, there has been little public opposition from those in the military on the topic.  (By contrast, present and former members of the military who oppose the ban have been a common item in the media, some in clear violation of military regulations.)  The supposition was that military members did disagree, but feared the reaction of the military if they expressed disagreement with their Commander in Chief and senior officers.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, who have expressed support for President Obama’s proposal to lift the ban, called General Mixon’s letter “inappropriate“: 

“I think that for an active duty officer to comment on an issue like this is inappropriate,” said Gates.

While one officer said the issue was more the method than the message, it is interesting that there has been no similar criticism of senior military officers who have “comment[ed] on an issue like this” in support of the change to DADT.  The LA Times wrote this appears to be an intentional effort on Mullen’s part to support the President’s proposal:

Opposition by military officers to gays serving openly in the military scuttled an attempt by former President Clinton’s [sic] to end the ban. Mullen, who has endorsed President Obama’s call to repeal the prohibition, has worked to ensure that military officers do not try to thwart the move.

Unfortunately, it is unclear if Gates’ directive about public comment was universal to the military or a reference to a specific written order.  When asked what Mixon did “wrong,” Admiral Mullen said

All of us in uniform are obliged to certainly follow the direction of leadership right up to the president.  And in fact…when the secretary announced a review, there had been very specific direction given by General Casey on how this was going to be approached — I mean, not verbally, but in fact written.  And there’s an expectation, obviously, that you would comply with that, or anybody would comply with that.

It is unclear if Mullen was attempting to say that military officers are bound to support the President’s political policies (as one news organization understood it) or if he was limiting his criticism to the apparent failure of Mixon to follow an unpublicized written order on public statements regarding DADT.  He may also be referring to service announcements that ‘input would be sought’ from servicemembers through panels, and that those panels–rather than a public forum–would have been the appropriate venue for the General to express his disagreement.

Also, to this point, military leadership has expressed an apparent willingness to hear military members’ perspectives–presumably both those in support of, and in opposition to, the change in policy.  For example, the Air Force leadership published a memorandum saying the Air Force

will survey servicemembers and their families to discern their views, particularly as they pertain to performance, unit cohesion, recruiting and retention, and other matters that impact our mission effectiveness, and to evaluate the range of regulations and policies that may be affected by this change. We encourage Airmen and family members to participate in these efforts.

Mullen himself had said:

Despite polls, despite what you see publicly, in opinion and all that – there’s no really objective data about how it will affect you. And that’s what…I need to find out from you and your families over the next many months…

In the end, I don’t know what the impact will be. That’s what we’ve got to find out. And over the next better part of this year, we hope to do that. So I would encourage you – and I need honest, frank input on this as we move forward so that we really do understand the impact.

Thus, the military leadership indicated it did not know what the impact would be; therefore, it needed to assess that impact based on servicemember input.  The potential implication–and some people’s understanding–was that the data from that survey would help guide the military’s decision-making processes regarding the proposed repeal.

In contrast to the perception of the proposed “surveys,” Gates’ prior statements seem to indicate the views of servicemembers were important to instituting the change, not deciding whether or not the change would occur:

Gates said the views of a wide range of age, rank and warfare communities, as well as family members, “is a critical aspect that will undoubtedly lead to insights and recommendations essential to the department’s implementation of any change”…The final product is to include a “plan of action” to support implementation of repeal, Gates said. (emphasis added)

This seems to portend the repeal of DADT as a foregone conclusion, meaning survey data expressing opposition to the repeal would be moot.  In fact, Admiral Mullen’s thoughts on servicemembers’ opposition to the repeal were blunt.  Addressing Mixon’s letter suggesting opposition to the President’s proposal to repeal DADT, Mullen said

In the end, if there is either policy direction that someone in uniform disagrees with…and you feel so strongly about it — you know, the answer is not advocacy; it is in fact to vote with your feet.

This was distilled in another article to:

Mullen’s message to those in uniform who have a problem with the current policy direction was simple: “vote with your feet” — another way of saying you are free to resign.

If by “policy direction” Mullen means the march toward the repeal of DADT (as one news outlet understood it), it would appear the military’s official position is that servicemembers are prohibited from speaking against the political proposal to change the current law regarding homosexuals in the military; and, if servicemembers disagree with that proposal, they can leave the military.

The public chiding of a senior military officer explicitly for his comments about the controversy–and the apparent statement that those who disagree should leave the military–will potentially chill any feedback the military may have received from servicemembers opposed to the change.  This may feed the very perception that Mixon was highlighting:  the misperception that members of the military “support” or “do not oppose” the repeal of DADT.

In the same briefing in which Gates and Mullen chided Mixon, Mullen seemed to indicate that he was unconcerned about the reaction of the military because in his meetings with servicemembers they had not expressed opposition:

In terms of the disruption issue…[in my] all-hands calls since that time, the honest answer — this is anecdotal — but there’s been very little of that said back to me specifically either by questions or statements — quite to the contrary.  Most of what I’ve heard has actually been very supportive of moving in this direction.

The problem is when the military leadership not only supports a policy, but also appears to discipline those who disagree with it, opposition by those under their command would naturally be muted.

The “interpretations” and paraphrases of some media organizations may not accurately reflect the context of answers given during the briefing.  A DoD transcript of the briefing can be viewed here.