Commentary Magazine


Topic: armed services

More on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

My article taking retired Gen. Merrill McPeak to task for the weakness of his arguments against lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the military has generated some heated responses on the Web (e.g., this post on David Horowitz’s website and this post by a retired Air Force NCO). A few points of rebuttal and clarification are in order.

First, I suggested that studies of other armed services that have lifted the gay ban have found no deleterious impact on unit cohesion or performance. This has supporters of the ban fulminating that one of the key studies was conducted by the Palm Center, a research center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which is openly committed to gay rights. That’s true, but the motives behind the study shouldn’t matter; what counts is whether the study is accurate, and I haven’t seen anyone suggest any actual distortion of the results. Besides, the Palm Center is not alone in its finding; see this article written by an Air Force colonel and published in Joint Forces Quarterly, an official publication of the National Defense University:

In a survey of over 100 experts from Australia, Canada, Israel, and the United Kingdom, it was found that all agreed the decision to lift the ban on homosexuals had no impact on military performance, readiness, cohesion, or ability to recruit or retain, nor did it increase the HIV rate among troops.

Critics can also argue that “other countries’ militaries aren’t comparable to the U.S. military. No other military on the planet, after all, can or will do what our military does.” That’s true, but while the Israeli, Australian, or British militaries don’t have the global power projection capabilities of the U.S., the general consensus is that on a unit-for-unit basis, they are just as effective as our own military. If having gays serve openly in their ranks hasn’t hurt their combat performance — and I have seen no indication that it has — I find it hard to believe it would have a major impact on our own forces.

Second, I suggested that allowing openly gay service members would have even less impact on unit cohesion than having women serve in the ranks. This has brought forth arguments that women have in fact contributed to a degradation of combat effectiveness, which has been covered up for “politically correct reasons.” I don’t doubt that pregnancy, sexual harassment, and fraternization have been real problems, but these would have existed even if women had been barred from service altogether, because of the presence of female contractors on all major American bases, even in combat zones. But there are also benefits to having women serve — see this article about how valuable female Marines are in interacting with Afghanistan’s women, something their male counterparts cannot do for reasons of cultural sensitivity.

The larger issue is that tapping into the female half of the population has allowed the military to draw on some great talent, which it would otherwise be denied. The same argument applies to gays (who are admittedly a much smaller percentage of the population). Women still aren’t allowed into some ground-combat jobs, and it may make sense, as I have previously argued, to extend that ban at least for some time to gays. But women are allowed to fill most jobs, and they bring intelligence, dedication, and hard work that the military — which has a hard time filling its all-volunteer ranks in wartime — badly needs. Same with homosexuals. The Joint Forces article notes: “Since 1994, the Services have discharged nearly 12,500 Service members under the law.” That’s a small number in the overall scheme of things, but a number of those had skills, such as Arab-language knowledge, that are very hard to replace. In recent years, the Army in particular has been forced to lower its standards to attract enough recruits. That suggests that we can hardly afford to discharge soldiers for their sexual preference — unless they act in undisciplined ways (e.g., committing sexual harassment), but those prohibitions should be enforced evenhandedly against both heterosexuals and homosexuals.

Despite the criticisms against my article, my sense is that most active-duty personnel are in fact comfortable with lifting the gay ban. That’s confirmed by this study, cited in an article by Owen West (himself a combat vet of Iraq): “A 2006 poll of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans showed that 72 percent were personally comfortable interacting with gays.” Given that 80 percent of the overall public favors lifting the ban, those  like Gen. McPeak favor keeping it in place are fighting a losing — and needless — battle.

My article taking retired Gen. Merrill McPeak to task for the weakness of his arguments against lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the military has generated some heated responses on the Web (e.g., this post on David Horowitz’s website and this post by a retired Air Force NCO). A few points of rebuttal and clarification are in order.

First, I suggested that studies of other armed services that have lifted the gay ban have found no deleterious impact on unit cohesion or performance. This has supporters of the ban fulminating that one of the key studies was conducted by the Palm Center, a research center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which is openly committed to gay rights. That’s true, but the motives behind the study shouldn’t matter; what counts is whether the study is accurate, and I haven’t seen anyone suggest any actual distortion of the results. Besides, the Palm Center is not alone in its finding; see this article written by an Air Force colonel and published in Joint Forces Quarterly, an official publication of the National Defense University:

In a survey of over 100 experts from Australia, Canada, Israel, and the United Kingdom, it was found that all agreed the decision to lift the ban on homosexuals had no impact on military performance, readiness, cohesion, or ability to recruit or retain, nor did it increase the HIV rate among troops.

Critics can also argue that “other countries’ militaries aren’t comparable to the U.S. military. No other military on the planet, after all, can or will do what our military does.” That’s true, but while the Israeli, Australian, or British militaries don’t have the global power projection capabilities of the U.S., the general consensus is that on a unit-for-unit basis, they are just as effective as our own military. If having gays serve openly in their ranks hasn’t hurt their combat performance — and I have seen no indication that it has — I find it hard to believe it would have a major impact on our own forces.

Second, I suggested that allowing openly gay service members would have even less impact on unit cohesion than having women serve in the ranks. This has brought forth arguments that women have in fact contributed to a degradation of combat effectiveness, which has been covered up for “politically correct reasons.” I don’t doubt that pregnancy, sexual harassment, and fraternization have been real problems, but these would have existed even if women had been barred from service altogether, because of the presence of female contractors on all major American bases, even in combat zones. But there are also benefits to having women serve — see this article about how valuable female Marines are in interacting with Afghanistan’s women, something their male counterparts cannot do for reasons of cultural sensitivity.

The larger issue is that tapping into the female half of the population has allowed the military to draw on some great talent, which it would otherwise be denied. The same argument applies to gays (who are admittedly a much smaller percentage of the population). Women still aren’t allowed into some ground-combat jobs, and it may make sense, as I have previously argued, to extend that ban at least for some time to gays. But women are allowed to fill most jobs, and they bring intelligence, dedication, and hard work that the military — which has a hard time filling its all-volunteer ranks in wartime — badly needs. Same with homosexuals. The Joint Forces article notes: “Since 1994, the Services have discharged nearly 12,500 Service members under the law.” That’s a small number in the overall scheme of things, but a number of those had skills, such as Arab-language knowledge, that are very hard to replace. In recent years, the Army in particular has been forced to lower its standards to attract enough recruits. That suggests that we can hardly afford to discharge soldiers for their sexual preference — unless they act in undisciplined ways (e.g., committing sexual harassment), but those prohibitions should be enforced evenhandedly against both heterosexuals and homosexuals.

Despite the criticisms against my article, my sense is that most active-duty personnel are in fact comfortable with lifting the gay ban. That’s confirmed by this study, cited in an article by Owen West (himself a combat vet of Iraq): “A 2006 poll of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans showed that 72 percent were personally comfortable interacting with gays.” Given that 80 percent of the overall public favors lifting the ban, those  like Gen. McPeak favor keeping it in place are fighting a losing — and needless — battle.

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