Repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?
|“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is on the chopping block. Would repealing it harm military readiness, or is it a backward policy whose end has come?|
|Lawrence J. Korb, Ph.D.||Elaine Donnelly|
|Center for American Progress||Center for Military Readiness|
|Lawrence J. Korb, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He served as assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration.||Elaine Donnelly is President of the Center for Military Readiness. She is a former member of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (1984–86), and of the 1992 Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces.|
|Part 1: Lawrence J. Korb, Ph.D.:Why Repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”?|
|Part 2: Elaine Donnelly: No Excuse for Imposing “LGBT Law” on the Military|
|Part 3: Lawrence J. Korb, Ph.D.: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: Support for Repeal from Conservatives|
|Part 4: Elaine Donnelly: Gays in the Military Law Deserves Continued Support|
Why Repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”?
Lawrence J. Korb, Ph.D., Sean Duggan, and Laura Conley
Then-Senator Barack Obama pledged during the 2008 presidential campaign that he would work with military leaders and Congress to repeal the law that bans openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military. Yet the law commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or DADT, remains in effect despite his campaign promise and subsequent pledges to fulfill it. As a consequence, more than 265 service members have been discharged on the basis of this discriminatory, outmoded, and counterproductive policy since Obama took office. Furthermore, the policy has deterred untold others who want to defend their country from serving. Gary Gates, a senior research fellow at the UCLA School of Law, found that if the proportion of gay men in the military was allowed to rise to equal that in the general population, “the military could raise their numbers by an estimated 41,000 men.”
DADT has resulted in the discharge of more than 13,000 patriotic and highly qualified men and women since its enactment more than 16 years ago. At least 1,000 of these 13,000 have held “critical occupations,” such as interpreters and engineers. Moreover, approximately 4,000 service members leave the service voluntarily per year because of this policy.
There is also no credible evidence supporting the underlying arguments for retaining the law—namely that it would undermine unit cohesion and military effectiveness. Even architects of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” have acknowledged that the policy was “‘based on nothing’ but ‘our own prejudices and our own fears.’”
Perhaps most important, this outmoded policy sends the wrong signal to the young people—straight or gay—that the military is trying to recruit. It tells them that the military is an intolerant place that does not value what they value, namely, diversity, fairness, and equality. What’s more, military recruiters face generalized hostility and opposition everywhere from high schools to colleges and law schools over the issue of discrimination against gays.
The Case for Repealing DADT
The Financial Cost. First and foremost, evidence shows that sexual orientation is not germane to military service. According to Dr. Nathaniel Frank of the Palm Center, “There is actually a vast body of data on homosexuality in the military…existing data show clearly that open gays can and do serve in the military without undermining cohesion, and that the gay ban itself causes more problems in the military than the presence of open gays in a unit.” Yet, according to Frank, “such evidence has played only a sporadic role…because the evidence has been consistently and tragically ignored every time the [U.S] government has confronted the issue of homosexuality and the military.” As a record of government and independent studies dating back to the 1950s demonstrates, the Pentagon has a history of suppressing studies that undercut the rationale for discriminating against gays.
Second, the direct financial cost of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on the American taxpayer is substantial. A 2005 Government Accountability Office report found that recruiting replacements for enlisted service members fired because of their sexual orientation from 1993 up until the end of fiscal year 2003 totaled at least $95 million in 2004 dollars. Nearly 10,000 service members were forced to separate from the military during this time, which amounts to nearly $10,000 per discharged service member.
More than 13,000 service members have now been discharged since 1993, which means that the total cost of DADT in 2004 dollars, according to the GAO estimates, would be more than $124 million. This would amount to more than $140 million in current dollars. Yet analysis of GAO’s methodology shows that the $95 million figure may be a substantial underestimate. A study by a group of defense experts, including former Secretary of Defense William Perry, released shortly after the 2005 GAO report found that GAO’s analysis left out several important factors, such as the high cost of training officers—commissioned soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and women, and members of the Coast Guard with several years of service experience—who were discharged due to their sexual orientation. Factoring in these costs makes the cost to the American taxpayer in 2004 dollars jump to at least $363.8 million, or approximately $37,000 per discharged service member. This total is $269 million, or over 380 percent, more than originally reported by GAO. When this more realistic accounting formulation is applied to the current total of 13,000 discharged service members, the cost amounts to more than $473 million in 2004 dollars or $535 million in current dollars.
The GAO moreover found in 1992 that “on the basis of its policy of excluding homosexuals from the military, DOD annually expelled an average of about 1,500 men and women between 1980 and 1990 under the separation category of ‘homosexuality.” At the rate of 1,500 per year, the number of discharges from 1980 through 1992 would be 19,500. These discharges would amount to an additional $800 million in current dollars.
Accordingly, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” may have cost the U.S. taxpayer up to $1.3 billion since 1980.
Lack of Support for DADT. Putting aside the financial costs of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy is no longer supported within the military, nor is it supported by the majority of Americans. When President Clinton tried to repeal DADT in 1993, only 44 percent of the American people supported changing the policy, and 76 percent of servicemen and 55 percent of service women disapproved of lifting the gay ban. But service members’ opinions have come full circle in the last decade and a half. A December 2006 Zogby International Poll found that 73 percent of military personnel say they are comfortable interacting with gay people. More importantly, when asked the question, “Do you agree or disagree with allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military,” roughly 58 percent of respondents either agreed or were neutral.
The American public is also now in favor of repealing DADT. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that nearly 70 percent of Americans are in favor of openly gay men and women being able to serve in the military. A recent ABC/Washington Post opinion poll found an even more dramatic increase in civilian acceptance of gays serving in the military since the early Clinton and George W. Bush years: 75 percent of Americans in the poll said “gay people who are open about their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve in the U.S. military,” up from 62 percent in early 2001 and 44 percent in 1993.
Military Readiness. A third point to consider is that allowing openly gay men and women to serve improves military readiness. While the military was discharging highly qualified and well-trained service men and women, and thousands of others were leaving voluntarily, it was forced to lower its educational, aptitude, and moral standards to meet its recruiting goals. It was moreover forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars retaining people in order to keep force levels high, rather than buying vital equipment for the wars we are currently fighting.
The army and Marine Corps in particular have significantly lowered their recruitment standards. The Department of Defense reported in 2007 that, over the prior four years, it had dramatically increased its distribution of “moral waivers,” which allow recruits charged or convicted of crimes (including serious felonies) to enter the military. The army reported distributing 4,918 such waivers in 2003, 4,529 waivers in 2004, 5,506 waivers in 2005, and 8,129 waivers in 2006. The Marine Corps reported distributing 19,195 waivers in 2003, 18,669 waivers in 2004, 20,426 waivers in 2005, and 20,750 waivers in 2006. These moral waivers include alarming numbers of applicants charged with felonies.
The system for coding waivers was entirely overhauled for all four departments of the armed forces in 2008, and the Department of Defense has since disavowed the statistics collected and released in 2007. But the army, since reforming its coding system, has still more than doubled the number of felony waivers from 249 in 2006 to 511 in 2007, while the Marine Corps reported an almost 70 percent increase in felony waivers during that time period, from 208 to 350. It is also important to note that the Department of Defense does not release the number of waivers distributed to applicants; only the waivers distributed to applicants who later enlisted are counted in the final tally.
The army has likewise been lowering its standards for recruits’ educational backgrounds to increase recruitment numbers, a dangerous proposition at a time of war. “Tier 1” army recruits—those who have received a high school diploma—have dropped to 71 percent of enlisted soldiers in 2007 from 94 percent in 2003, falling far short of its goal of maintaining 90 percent Tier 1 rates. Fortunately, prior-education rates of Air Force, Navy, and Marine recruits have remained consistently flat.
The Moral Dimension. Perhaps most important, the federal government should repeal the policy because it is discriminatory and intolerant and thus inconsistent with American values. Anachronistic practices eventually give way to social progress as American society comes to appreciate how antithetical those practices are to its values. This was the case with the ban on African Americans and women serving in the military.
It is also important to note that by allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the military, the services—as noted earlier—will be following, rather than leading, the society from which they draw troops and support. This was not the case when Truman ordered the military to desegregate in the late 1940s or when President Clinton first attempted to drop the ban on gays in the early 1990s.
We expect military members to defend not only our country but the Constitution and the individual liberties guaranteed under the Constitution, and we should not send those service members an official “mixed message” that some of the liberties they are prepared to die for are ones they shouldn’t accept within their own ranks.
Reasons Opponents Give for Not Repealing DADT
Damage to Unit Cohesion. Opponents of repealing the ban on allowing openly gay men and lesbians to serve in the military most frequently cite the specious claim that it would damage unit cohesion. The problem with this argument, according to Nathaniel Frank, is that there is no good evidence to support this claim and considerable evidence against it.
In fact, a review of nearly 200 publications in the past 50 years conducted by Robert J. MacCoun, a contributor to the 1993 RAND study on gay service, found in 1996 that “it is task cohesion, not social cohesion or group pride, that drives group performance.”
“Task cohesion” refers to group solidarity that results from the collective efforts of individuals dedicated to achieving a common goal; “social cohesion” refers to bonds of friendship and affinity among group members. In emphasizing task over group cohesion, the studies to which MacCoun referred strongly suggested that as long as all of the personnel in combat are committed to their mission, they will perform it equally effectively regardless of whether they can relate to one another personally. Even those units that pair openly homosexual soldiers with soldiers who are uncomfortable with serving alongside homosexuals should therefore find themselves no less capable of performing their given missions. “This conclusion,” MacCoun says, “is consistent with the results of hundreds of studies in the industrial-organizational psychological literature.”
Skeptics claim that task cohesion would not suffice to produce satisfactory results, and it must be combined with group cohesion. But similar studies cited by MacCoun that analyze both military and nonmilitary group efforts prove that these assertions are unfounded as well. Regarding cohesion in the military, two facts deserve particular attention. First, military training and battlefield experience in themselves reinforce task cohesion. As Judith Stiehm pointed out in a 1992 article, “trust and confidence develop not from homogeneity, but shared experience… the military assumes the job of training [recruits] to behave as a team.” Brian Mullen and Carolyn Copper of Syracuse University conducted “the most complete meta-analysis to date” on the relationship between cohesion and performance and similarly found that, after controlling for task cohesion, “social cohesion had no connection to performance.”
Foreign Services. Opponents of repealing the ban on allowing openly gay men and lesbians to serve in the military often claim that militaries similar to the United States’ do not allow openly gay men and lesbians to serve. Indeed, when President Clinton tried to repeal the ban on openly gay service members in 1993, his detractors claimed that no military equivalent to that of the United States—namely the British armed forces—had implemented such a change. Given the fact that the British military is perhaps the closest in design and operation to the U.S. military, this argument carried considerable weight with those wishing to maintain the ban in the 1990s. The British, like the United States, deploy their forces frequently, and their troops serve in close quarters on submarines and ships—situations where Clinton’s opponents believed open homosexuality would be particularly disruptive to order and unit cohesion.
Yet the British position has changed since 1993. Britain began studying the policy intensely in the mid-1990s and, although the Ministry of Defense’s Homosexual Policy Assessment Team determined that Britain should continue to ban gay service members, the British reversed their policy after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the ban violated the right to privacy promised in the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court’s decision, which was legally binding, forced the British government in January 2000 to allow gay troops to serve openly. Not surprisingly, the British have not experienced any cohesion problems over the past decade.
Recruitment and Retention. Critics note that some U.S. service members have indicated that they would leave or might leave if openly gay men and women were permitted to serve. Recent public opinion polls reflecting the favorable opinion of service men and women to serving with openly gay men and lesbians aside, this is a serious argument that must be confronted head-on.
The British experience subsequent to the ban’s repeal suggests that the United States has little reason to be concerned. Pre-repeal surveys in Britain indicated that there would be a backlash from current troops—the Palm Center reports that “in both Canada and Britain, two-thirds of male troops said that they would not work with gay men if gay bans were lifted”—yet only a handful of service members resigned. Moreover, the Ministry of Defense’s internal study six months after the policy change concluded that, contrary to expectations, “there has been a marked lack of reaction” to allowing gay troops to serve.
Lifting the ban on gays serving in the British military ultimately proved more difficult in theory than in practice. According to Frank, once the change had been made, the British found that “sexuality was now regarded as a private matter” among service members.
Not the Right Time. Still others argue that now is not the time to end this form of discrimination in the military with more than 200,000 troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and the Pentagon undertaking serious budget and operational overhauls. Yet this line of reasoning also falls flat. Perhaps now more than ever—with the United States engaged in two wars and attempting to change the direction of the defense budget—it is critical that the U.S. military stop discharging service members with valuable overseas experience, or those whom the military has spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, to train. The fact that DADT has resulted in the discharge of more than 1,000 service members with skills deemed “critical occupations” demonstrates further the irrationality of waiting to overturn DADT.
A Dangerous Policy
Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is not simply a “gay rights” issue. It’s a matter of military readiness. The United States is doggedly adhering to a policy that is purging its armed forces of much-needed talent and manpower and sending the wrong signal to many potential recruits on grounds that are discriminatory and baseless. This makes the policy both unjustifiable and highly dangerous.
The United States is involved in two wars abroad and an economic crisis at home; now is the time for President Obama to fulfill his campaign pledge and begin the process of repealing this unnecessary and counterproductive law.
 Government Accountability Office, “Financial Costs and Loss of Critical Skills Due to DoD’s Homosexual Conduct Policy Cannot be Completely Estimated,” February 2005. Note: GAO’s 2005 report reflected separations as of the end of FY 2003 when 757 service members had been forced to leave the military due to DoD’s homosexual conduct policy. The 1,000 figure above reflects an estimation of the current number of service members separated from the military given a constant pace of separations. Nathaniel Frank, Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009), p. 113.
 Ibid., p. 114.
 Government Accountability Office, “Financial Costs and Loss of Critical Skills.”
 Full disclosure: Lawrence Korb was a member of this group.
 Frank, Unfriendly Fire, p. 126.
 Zogby International, “Opinions of Military Personnel on Sexual Minorities in the Military,” p. 14.
 Sergeant Dennis Drogo, Assistant Director, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness/MPP. Telephone interview conducted on June 19, 2009.
 Interview with Personnel and Readiness Office, Department of Defense. Telephone interview conducted on June 19, 2009.
 Frank, Unfriendly Fire, p. 131.
 Frank, Unfriendly Fire, pp. 144–45.
 Belkin and others, “How to End ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Palm Center,” p.9.
 Frank, Unfriendly Fire, p. 146.
 Ibid, p. 149.
Repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”? (A Four-Part Series)
Part 1: Lawrence J. Korb, Ph.D.: Why Repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”?
Part 2: Elaine Donnelly: No Excuse for Imposing “LGBT Law” on the Military
Part 3: Lawrence J. Korb, Ph.D.: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: Support for Repeal from Conservatives
Part 4: Elaine Donnelly: Gays in the Military Law Deserves Continued Support