Defending ‘Don’t Ask’
In the military, open homosexuality harms unit cohesion.


Mackubin Thomas Owens

In a February 3 Wall Street Journal op-ed, I argued that the current law forbidding homosexual military members to discuss their sexual orientation ought to remain in place. I based my contention on the importance of non-sexual bonding as the glue of unit cohesion, which is an important contributor to military effectiveness. As expected, I received a great deal of feedback, some positive, some negative. I thought it might be useful to respond to my critics’ most common objections.

First, some argued that the studies indicating the importance of cohesion in war have been “discredited.” But the only way that academics can get away with this claim is to redefine cohesion in such a way that it loses all significance.

Here’s how the 1992 report of the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces described cohesion: the relationship that develops in a unit or group in which 1) members share common values and experiences; 2) individuals in the group conform to group norms and behavior in order to ensure group survival and goals; 3) members lose their identity in favor of a group identity; 4) members focus on group activities and goals; 5) unit members become totally dependent on each other for the completion of their mission or survival; and 6) group members must meet all the standards of performance and behavior in order not to threaten group survival.

A number of people observed that my argument regarding the potential impact of open homosexuals on unit cohesion could just as well be applied to women. They are correct, of course. Indeed, in 1993, I first deployed my argument about the importance of non-sexual bonding to the issue of women in combat. And while many military specialties have been opened to women since then, service in ground combat remains closed to women for exactly this reason.

Second, some argued that the integration of open homosexuals into the military was merely a manifestation of the quest for civil rights that began with African-Americans after World War II. According to this argument, lifting the ban against military service by open homosexuals would be analogous to President Truman’s executive order racially integrating the military services. They echo the claim of James Carroll in a Boston Globe column some years ago: “Today’s soldiers and sailors reluctant to serve shoulder to shoulder with homosexuals are the progeny of racist and sexist soldiers and sailors who were told to get over it or get out.”

But Truman’s order was motivated by concerns about military effectiveness, not civil rights. For a variety of reasons, segregated African-American units generally did not perform well on the battlefields of World War II. Truman’s actions were in response to military-manpower experts who believed that integration would improve the military effectiveness of black soldiers.

In addition, many African-Americans take offense at the comparison between their struggle and homosexuals’. As Colin Powell noted in his memoirs, the reaction among African-American groups in 1993 to the argument linking gay rights and the civil-rights movement was mixed: “The Congressional Black Caucus favored removing the ban on homosexuals in the armed services. But other leaders were telling me that they resented having the civil rights crusade hijacked by the gay community for its ends.”