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Shift on "Don't Ask" Reflects Cultural Sea Change

(AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
When President Obama's top military officials tell the Senate that the administration is going to be more tolerant of gays in the military, they're reflecting a huge cultural sea change on the issue in this country, and especially among a younger generation of soldiers and officers.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen (at left) are announcing today that the military will no longer pursue allegations from third parties that a service member is gay. And they're say they're going to begin the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" so that gays can serve openly in the military.

Mr. Obama said in last week's State of the Union address that he would end "don't ask, don't tell," the law, as he put it, that "denies gay Americans the right to serve in the country they love because of who they are." (Watch the video.)

The reaction from a public focused on important issues like jobs and the economy was decidedly ho-hum. There were no protests. No outrage.

That's because this is not 1993, when President Clinton got so bogged down in the issue of gays in the military that it derailed much of his domestic policy initiatives in his first year in the White House. After 17 years, we're dealing with an entirely different group of soldiers and officers -- those that came of age in a time when being gay is no big deal.

A Personal Look at "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

These soldiers and officers knew people or had friends who were open about their sexual orientation in high school, yet all of a sudden, they go into the military and learn they can't tell anybody or ask or talk about it, under the military's policy of "don't ask, don't tell."

One of the soldiers I talked to about this —- he's straight and served in Iraq alongside a gay service member —- said the policy demands people pretend they're something they're not. And that's not only dishonest, he said, but also weird and, well, ridiculous.

Retired Gen. Colin Powell recognized as much, when he said last year on CNN that he thought that the 1993 policy was "correct for the time," but that "16 years have now gone by, and I think a lot has changed with respect to attitudes within our country, and therefore I think this is a policy and a law that should be reviewed."

And this next generation of officers feels much the same. Many believe say privately they think it's a huge waste of time to investigate rumors that a service member is gay, and that the much bigger problem, from a command perspective, is when male and female soldiers have affairs or physical relationships. These officers say the better approach is to just police the conduct —- no physical relationships, whether you're straight or gay -— and leave it at that.

Outside the military, polls also reflect this cultural shift among the American people. In 1993, 52 percent of Americans opposed gays in the military. Last year, only 17 percent opposed it.

That's why this issue is not a big political risk for Barack Obama, certainly not like it was Bill Clinton. Times have changed. And the military can reflect that.