Don't ask, don't tell

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Here's an interesting post from Dale Carpenter of the Volokh Conspiracy on gays in the military. Carpenter notes that the number of service members discharged for homosexuality fell rather steadily from 1982 to 1994, then rose starting in 1995 (he erroneously says 1994) up through 2001 (with the exception of a slight decline in one year), then fell sharply in 2002 and 2003 (the last year for which he has data). The pivot points in the curve are thus 1994 and 2001, both with obvious significance: 1994 marked the installation by statute of the Clinton administration's don't-ask-don't-tell policy, and 2001 was the year of September 11 and the beginning of our active response in the war against Islamofascist terrorists. DADT, as Carpenter points out, actually resulted in rising discharges of gays; after September 11, as during other wars, discharges of gays declined in number.

All of which raises questions about the continuing utility of DADT and the ban on gays in the military. Carpenter quotes Sharra Geer, who works for the Service Members' Legal Defense Network, which represents gay soldiers, as providing the following explanation:

The equations for commands have shifted," Greer said. They are under enormous pressure to retain people. They do a cost-benefit analysis and we are hearing the same thing: 'I really don't care if you are gay and I am not going to kick you out.' " Recent studies have shown that many soldiers dismissed in past years under don't ask, don't tell" tended to be in highly trained specialties now in demand, including linguists and medical technicians. ... Meanwhile, there is a growing body of evidence that attitudes have changed within the ranks. A recent study by the Naval Postgraduate School found that a majority of military personnel felt comfortable around openly gay colleagues.

If this is right—and Geer must be regarded as an interested party, with an ax to grind—it makes a strong case for repealing DADT and the ban on gays. The argument for that policy, made in 1993 by then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell, was that the presence of open gays in the military would reduce unit cohesion and therefore military effectiveness. That was a plausible argument, and if true a rational basis for this kind of discrimination. We have a military, after all, to defend the country, not to provide some kind of equal opportunity self-improvement organization. Service members give up all manner of rights civilians take for granted in the interest of military effectiveness. I think that if the racial segregation of the military in World War II had been challenged in a court at that time, the court would have rejected the challenge. After all, generals like George Marshall believed that racial segregation was necessary for military effectiveness, and they had some rational basis for that belief at the time, as odious as that policy seems today to the overwhelming majority of the American people.

But attitudes change. If GIs would have responded to racial integration with negative effects on military effectiveness in the 1940s, that was no longer true in the 1950s—or at least that was the judgment of President Harry Truman and, although there was some racial tension in the military for some time, that judgment has been vindicated by history. The military is now the most racially integrated segment of American life today.

If Powell was correct in saying that the presence of open gays would hurt military effectiveness in 1993, would his successor Gen. Peter Pace say the same thing today? Twenty-year-olds then were born in 1973; 20-year-olds today were born in 1986. Maybe those two age cohorts have different attitudes toward the presence of gays. My guess is that they do. But I could be wrong—or it could be that the young people who sign up for the military today are less accepting of gays than the average for their age cohort. Serious opponents of the ban on gays in the military, like Rep. Barney Frank, have addressed the issue of unit cohesion and have made plausible arguments that it would not be hurt significantly by the presence of gays. If it's true that service members with scarce talent, like Arab linguists and medical technicians, have been discharged for homosexuality, that affects military effectiveness negatively.

As the law professors who sought to bar military recruiters from their schools because of the DADT policy conveniently failed to acknowledge, it is not the military that unilaterally imposes this policy; it is required by a law passed by a (Democratic)Congress and signed by President Clinton. But Congress could change the law. I'd like to see members of Congress ask our military leaders whether the attitudes of service members today have changed from what Powell said they were in 1993. Would the presence of openly gay service members have negative effectson military performance greater than the (probably minor) negative effects of discharging openly gay members? Does the ban still make sense? I don't feel confident I know the answers to these questions. But I do think the fact that public attitudes toward homosexuality have been changing rapidly in recent years and the fact that at least a few service personnel with needed skills have been discharged (those Arab linguists) suggest that they are responsible questions to ask at this time.

I suppose this is not the right political moment for raising this issue: Republicans are mostly not inclined to challenge such a policy, and Democrats, given the political fallout they suffered in 1994, probably are wary of it. But perhaps there are some members of Congress who feel a responsibility to raise these questions, even if there is a political downside to doing so. We're fighting a war, and we need to have the most effective military possible, whether that cuts in favor of or against exclusion of open gays from the military.

I suppose I should add that even if we changed our policy on gays in the military, there could and should still be regulations against unwanted sexual advances, sexual harassment, and the like. I presume there are regulations against such conduct by current service members. Let me close with a reference to conservative blogger Ed Morrissey, who has advocated ending the ban on gays in the military. Morrissey's arguments are worth reading, and so are those of many of his respondents, pro and con.