A little-publicized, normally perfunctory hearing to confirm the next commandant of the Marine Corps turned into a grand stage for political theater Tuesday when Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona traded jabs with his fellow legislators and Pentagon officials on the topic of "don’t ask, don’t tell."
During the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Senator McCain, the ranking Republican, was clearly irritated and apparently amazed at the ongoing Congressional push to repeal the ban on openly gay troops serving in the US military. “Have you seen the, quote, study, that is being conducted by the Department of Defense?” he asked Gen. James Amos, currently the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps and now up for the branch’s top job. The study he referred to is a Pentagon survey to determine opinions about the repeal among troops and their families.
McCain did not wait for an answer. “You know that this study, quote unquote, does not assess the impact of morale and effectiveness on the repeal of the law?”
He then raised a particular source of contention – that the study currently being conducted by the senior Pentagon officials on the impact of repealing the ban on openly gay troops was designed to help Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others figure out not, “whether,” but how best to change the policy. He called this “an incredible act of disingenuous behavior on their part.”
Gen. Amos seemed unsure how to respond to this attack on his bosses.
He didn’t have to, as McCain continued. “So I guess my question is,” the senator wondered, “would you be able to determine the effect on morale and battle effectiveness” of the repeal, or instead would the survey simply “tell you how best the repeal can be implemented?” The answer he was hoping for was not particularly tricky to figure out.
In his advance policy questions submitted to the committee, Amos made his opinion on the matter clear. “In my personal view, the current law and associated policy have supported the unique requirements of the Marine Corps,” he wrote, “and thus I do not recommend its repeal.”
Amos's primary concerns, he said, include “the potential disruption to cohesion” and that a change in policy would be “a distraction to Marines who are tightly focused at this point on combat operations in Afghanistan.”
But in the face of McCain’s earlier questioning, Amos chose to defend his boss. “Senator McCain, I’ve been a big fan of the Secretary of Defense’s effort to introduce this survey since the beginning,” he said.
He added, too, that the cultures of the various military service branches differ. Some 60 percent of US Marines are under the age of 21, Amos pointed out, “So we’re not sure what the impact is going to be.”
He noted, however, that “one of the rights of passage of being a young enlisted Marine is being able to grouse.” He went on, “If we step away from don't ask, don't tell, there are a lot of things that the average marine won’t agree with.”
But what the service does have, he said, is discipline. “We are the most disciplined service of all the ones you have,” Amos reckoned. “We follow orders.” Any new policy, he added, would be backed by strong leadership and strong discipline. “If the law is changed... the Marine Corps will get in step and do it smartly.”
McCain added a final note as his allotted questioning time drew to a close. The push for the repeal is “all being done in light of the November 2 elections,” the veteran politician said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years I’ve served here.”