Marine chief: 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal could be deadly 'distraction'

Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marines, defended his position that 'don't ask, don't tell' should not be repealed, saying a repeal could cause problems among combat troops.

Alex Brandon/AP/file
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos (r.) testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington Dec. 3, 2010 during a Senate hearing on the military 'don't ask, don't tell' policy.

The new commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos, on Tuesday defended his decision to recommend against repealing "don't ask, don't tell" in Dec. 3 congressional testimony – a position at odds with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen.

In a roundtable discussion with reporters, Amos said that a Pentagon report on the impact of repealing "don't ask, don't tell" “sent a very strong message” that marines were against repealing the ban. Though the report recommended repealing "don't ask, don't tell," it also found that nearly 60 percent of combat troops said that a repeal could have negative effects on the force.

“I take that very, very seriously,” Amos said, adding he worried that openly gay troops in Marine Corps combat units would pull focus away from fighting.

“I don’t want to lose any marines to the distraction,” he said. “I don’t want any marines that I’m visiting at Bethesda [National Naval Medical Center military hospital in Maryland] with no legs be the result of any type of distraction.”

Surveys in the Pentagon report showed that the majority of troops believed a change in the law would have a positive or no impact on US military effectiveness. Mullen and Secretary Gates cited these findings in recommending a repeal.

'No margin for distraction'

But Amos took something else from the report: While troops who were not in combat were less concerned about serving with gay comrades, for those who are at war, “there is no margin for distraction,” Amos said.

“This was not a flippant, rush-right-in preparation,” he added. “This was a very, very deep, thoughtful – I read the report, the survey over and over again.”

As to how, precisely, openly homosexual service members would affect unit cohesion, particularly given that gay service members are now serving in the marines, Amos said he was not able to offer any examples.

“I don’t have an answer to that,” he said. “I can’t answer what kind of behavior” that might be. “I just know in that environment there is no margin for error.”

Even before his congressional testimony, Amos had made clear his reservations about a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," questioning the wisdom of an appeal shortly after he became head of the Marine Corps in October. This earned him a rebuke from Mullen for speaking about the law before the Pentagon had issued its final report.

Why the Marines are different

On Tuesday, he offered some thoughts on why the Marines seem more averse than the Army, Air Force, or Navy to having openly gay troops in their ranks. He said it involved recruitment and the reputation of the Marines as a tough fighting force.

While he disputed the notion that it’s “a macho thing," he added: “We recruit on a warrior ethos…. We live hard, we train hard. We do tough things,” he said. “We recruit men and women for that kind of ethos."

“It’s never, ‘We’re going to give you a college education,’ ” he added. “We never say that.”

Recruits who sign up for the Marines come in with “expectations,” Amos argued. “I can’t explain what the expectations are. I can’t explain what they think might happen.”

For his part, Gates has argued that he would prefer an orderly repeal passed by Congress to an abrupt reversal by the courts – a scenario Gates called a "nightmare" that could cause mass confusion in the military. Amos said Tuesday: “I don’t know how dangerous a court ruling would be."

But should the law be overturned, either by court ruling or by Congress, Amos said he respected civilian control of the government and would obey the decision.

He recounted an answer he gave some young Marine lieutenants earlier in the day when they asked him what would happen if the ban was lifted. “Don’t make it too hard,” he told them. The answer, he added, is “actually easy. I’m going to get in step and do it smartly.”

In such a case, it’s not a matter of “let’s reconsider it,” Amos said. “It’s a matter of ‘Yes, sir.’ ”

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