The survey is out. The results show that “the military” is in favor of lifting the ban on openly gay people in the armed services. The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” seems imminent. Momentum: If you create enough of it, change happens, and quickly.
That process is great for run-of-the-mill political issues, but for our military, I hope we can do better. Our politicians and appointed leaders must have a frank discussion about what lifting the ban would mean for the military.
In discussing the survey, headlines blared “70 percent” as the proportion of service members who are fine with lifting the ban — the implication being that more than two-thirds of our troops actually favor repeal. However, the survey does not come anywhere close to supporting that conclusion.
First, the survey did not even ask service members whether they actually favor repeal. Instead, it asked questions about what effect repeal would have on various aspects of the military.
Second, the 70 percent figure includes service members who gave mixed responses — “equally positive and negative” — to these questions. It’s true that about 70 percent of respondents answered either positively or mixed, but a similar proportion answered either negatively or mixed. Depending on which side you place the mixed responses, you can make the data look strong in either direction. For example, Question 71a asked how lifting the ban would impact unit effectiveness. The results show that 74 percent responded either “equally positive and equally negative” or “negatively/very negatively.”
And third, in choosing to skew the response patterns in the direction of support, the media missed a big part of the story: The results get more interesting when we break down responses along service lines and specific work environments.
On a question regarding overall readiness, for example, 59 percent of Marines responded that repeal would have a mixed or negative effect. Among members of the Army, a lower proportion, 50 percent, responded the same way, which makes sense, given the large proportion of the Army not serving in combat roles.
When we break down the stats into combat versus non-combat roles, a telling divergence emerges: Military personnel in combat roles are less likely to support repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Marines in combat roles gave 68 percent mixed or negative responses to the question about effectiveness; U.S. Army soldiers in combat roles gave 59 percent mixed or negative responses. Regarding task cohesion, 82 percent of combat-role Marines and 74 percent of combat-role Army soldiers responded mixed or negatively. Regarding social cohesion, the numbers are 84 percent for the Marine Corps and 75 percent for the Army.
We need to ask why troops in combat roles have such a different perspective on the effect of lifting “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Before the policy is changed, we need a serious discussion of how units would deal with openly homosexual men in close quarters in combat situations. The same question must be asked about deployment on ships in the U.S. Navy.
Thousands of years of cultural development have gone into keeping men from having sex with everything in sight — and all of the bulwarks notwithstanding, men still love to have sex. We all know this. Which brings me to the relevance of this fact to the issue at hand: The military cannot tolerate sex in combat. The military also cannot tolerate the tensions that surround sexual relationships or potential ones.
As a testament to this, look at the current state of gender in combat. Today, most of the 14,000 soldiers in combat arms and Marines who responded to this survey do not even have women in their units — 70 percent in the Marine Corps, and 58 percent in the Army.
In and out of battle, the military still struggles mightily with sex in the ranks. As a staff judge advocate (the legal adviser to the commanding officer) in the Navy, I spent a majority of my time dealing with issues that involve sex and relationships; I personally reviewed hundreds of these situations. It was all incredibly disheartening. There are sexual assaults, sexual discrimination, and even prostitution rings. Some of the allegations are false, but they still drain countless resources and personnel hours.