Politics & Policy

An End to ‘Don’t Ask’?

Don’t ask Marines, just tell them to fight.

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.

While the great majority of our troops do the right thing in this arena, a small minority can monopolize all the personnel time in a unit. The military is a microcosm of society, and human nature is on full display. We do the best we can with the imperfections God gave us. Adding a new layer of sexual and social relations — which I presume, perhaps unfairly, is what permitting homosexuals to serve openly is all about — would make fighting wars harder. There really is no question about that.

Homosexuals are, de facto, allowed to be in the military right now. They can serve their country. They do so all around the world. Under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” however, they do not force the military to deal with an added layer of relationships. Allowing homosexuals to “live out” their sexuality and their relationships in the military would cause many problems. Along with more sex comes more assaults, more sexual tension, and more of everything we already battle on a daily basis. Politicians must be able to step up and discuss this without fear of being slammed as bigots.

The Pentagon’s commission on the issue begins to address some related problems in its recent report. Without “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military will have to grapple with discrimination, along with the inevitable preferential treatment that will be afforded, on the basis of sexual orientation. There is also the incredibly sensitive topic of freedom of religion, and whether leaders will be forced to endorse homosexuality as a lifestyle. No matter what the military brass and politicians decide, commanders and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) will be left to pick up the pieces.

Only one generation ago, a majority of those who served in the U.S. Congress were military veterans. They understood what the military is really like. Today, in contrast, very few members of Congress have military experience.

Representatives and senators need to understand that officers and senior NCOs are responsible for the daily shaping and molding of many other human beings. Those of you who are parents, think for a moment how hard it is to shape your own child. Now, break the biological link, add dozens more people to the group, and put gunfire and death into the mix.

I would be more inclined to experiment with lifting the ban if I were confident that our lawmakers would reverse course if the decision proved disastrous. Unfortunately, I have zero confidence that “don’t ask, don’t tell” would be reinstituted even if the grimmest statistics emerged.

What if recruitment faltered, or if combat troops became less likely to reenlist when given the opportunity? Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that if that happened, we should let them leave. This gives us an indication of how this debate will shake out in the future.

And what if the Marine Corps experienced a dramatic decrease in unit cohesion that led to deaths on the battlefield? The Marines are expected to fight in the worst places on the planet. They are underfunded and undermanned. They are appreciated greatly, but many Americans appreciate them only in a generic sort of way. There are many explanations for this, but the most charitable is lack of exposure. Unless you have been a Marine or personally known a Marine, you really don’t understand how tremendous they are. Popular culture teaches us more about the lives of actors and reality-television stars than it does about this elite tribe — this last best hope. I have read and clipped articles from every mainstream news publication for the past month, and I have seen almost no journalism regarding the actual effect that lifting the ban would have on Marines fighting our wars.

So, I offer another compromise to add to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise: Allow openly gay men and women to serve in all military jobs and positions that do not require living in close quarters. Off-limits areas that most immediately come to mind are ship-deployable Navy units, combat-arms designators in the U.S. Army, special operations for all services, and the U.S. Marine Corps. This leaves giant swaths of military-service opportunities for openly gay Americans, including almost all of the Air Force, most hospital positions, and administrative jobs in the various services. Judging by my own observation, gays tend to serve disproportionately in medical positions already. The military is a complex beast, however, so it should work out the details itself.

Unfortunately, I do not think a compromise could actually emerge out of this process. Political momentum flows one way or the other all the time, but in many instances, true leaders are conspicuously absent. In this case, it appears that one lone veteran in the U.S. Senate, John McCain, is prepared to be just that in seeking to ensure that the conclusion reached is based on facts.

McCain’s courage is commendable, but he should not have to stand alone. Other politicians must step up and really talk about the core of this issue. At the very least, Congress should heed the advice given by three of the military’s four service heads and postpone repeal. Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, testified on Friday before a Senate panel that “if the law is changed, successfully implementing repeal and assimilating openly homosexual Marines into the tightly woven fabric of our combat units has a strong potential for disruption at the small-unit level.”

We owe it to our warriors to take our time, ask the hard questions, and make sure we get this right.

– Adam Paul Laxalt is an attorney and former lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, Judge Advocate General’s Corps, who served on active duty from 2005 until 2010.


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