Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Is America’s War Policy

W.J. Astore

For a time, don’t ask, don’t tell, was the U.S. military’s policy about homosexuality within the ranks. In short, if you weren’t a heterosexual, you were supposed to keep quiet (don’t tell) about it. At the same time, the military wasn’t about to ask you whether you were “straight” or not. It was a compromise engineered by the Clinton administration that left more than a few people of all persuasions disgruntled.

There is another don’t ask, don’t tell, policy that I would argue is far worse than the Clinton compromise about sexual orientation. What do I mean?

U.S. military officials work very hard to discourage Americans from asking about America’s wars (don’t ask), and at the same time they work very hard not to tell us anything meaningful about those same wars (don’t tell).

It was my wife who quipped about this other “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as she read Daniel Hale’s letter posted at this site. You see, people like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Daniel Hale are trying to tell us about America’s wars, whether it’s illegal domestic surveillance and the war on terror or war crimes in Iraq or war crimes related to drone killings in Afghanistan. They are not supposed to tell. At the same time, we the people are not supposed to ask.

Other than serving as cheerleaders of “our” troops, Americans are expected to remain passive when it comes to war and the military. We can, if we wish, remain blissfully ignorant, which is exactly what the “experts” at the Pentagon want from us. Leave it to us, the experts say, and we won’t tell you anything that’ll disturb your peace. Whatever you do, don’t ask probing questions of us. Indeed, don’t ask anything at all, except perhaps “How do I sign up?” if you’re young and of military age.

Of course, this is the very opposite of how Democracy should work. We are supposed to ask our government what it’s doing in our name, and they are supposed to tell us even if we won’t like the answers.

But America is no longer a democracy.

As a retired military officer, I’m well aware that discipline is important, that secrecy can be vital, and that loyalty is everything. But loyalty to what?  The U.S. Constitution, I hope, and the idea that leaders and their actions should be accountable to the people since they (in theory) wage war and kill people in our name.  But when wars are no longer declared by Congress, and when the people are no longer rallied to a cause, we have the exercise of unlawful power, of less-than-legal war, which is why we need people to step forward with courage informed by their conscience.

Sadly, precisely because of their courage and their acts of conscience, they are always punished. They are punished because they are not supposed to tell us any uncomfortable truths, and we are not supposed to ask for any of the same.

Consider this the unofficial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that helps to drive America’s wars. It’s still very much in effect; it’s also yet another sign of the death of participatory democracy in America.