DADT, Unit Cohesion, and American Values

(Was set to be published on Dec. 17, when the Senate voted for repeal, making it thankfully moot)

In the debate over repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, Senators such as John McCain cling to the argument that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military might negatively impact on unit cohesion, and thus on war-fighting capability. The Commander of the Marines, General James Amos, has fueled such claims, suggesting that repealing the policy in a time of war could cause casualties. As the Senate begins its debate on the issue, it is crucial to understand the assumptions and validity of this argument.

The conclusion of the argument is itself tenuous. Over 25 of our democratic allies have changed their policies within the last twenty years to allow homosexuals to serve openly. Comprehensive studies of those militaries, including those of such close allies as Great Britain, Israel, Australia and Canada, have established that the change in policy did not result in any degradation of fighting capability. Moreover, prior to the policy shifts, surveys of military members in many of those countries found that there was strong opposition to the change, and suggested that there would be significant disruption if implemented. In other words, stated attitudes grossly exaggerated the likely impact. Yet the recent Pentagon study of the U.S. military found that 70% of service members already accept the change and think it would have little impact.

But let us assume for the moment, just for the sake of argument, that there might be some disruption to unit cohesion if DADT is repealed. Why would that be? No one suggests that it is because gays and lesbians are inherently less capable of fulfilling their duties or performing combat functions than their straight brothers and sisters in arms. It is not about their conduct at all. It is all about the response of their comrades.

The argument rests on an assumption that the straight members of the military may react with hostility, suspicion, and contempt for openly gay and lesbian members. It is the hostile response of other members that will cause the disruption. And no one makes the outrageous claim that such bigotry and intolerance is itself necessary, or is inexorably linked to other characteristics that are essential for a strong warrior ethos. The assumed intolerance is no different than the prejudices against blacks and women that were overcome by the military in the past. The argument against the repeal of DADT rests not only upon an assertion that there persists a homophobic and intolerant attitude among some elements of the military, but further suggests that we as a country should continue to discriminate against the victims of that bigotry and prejudice, rather than try to change the underlying attitudes. It is no different than the claims raised in a past era that restaurants ought to be able to discriminate against people of color, since accepting them would likely be harmful to business by driving away the prejudiced white customers.

The reality of course is that the military is not nearly as intolerant or bigoted as Senator McCain and others seem to think. The experience of other armed forces, and the recent study by the Pentagon, bear this out. As I have written about elsewhere, I was a naval officer who experienced first-hand the Canadian navy’s response to the reception of women into combat roles at sea, and I can attest to how quickly the military sub-culture can adapt. All the hand-wringing at the time about disruption of unit cohesion had been grossly misplaced.

But even if there was to be some temporary disruption, it is simply odious to argue that the prejudice and intolerance that is the cause of such issues should somehow trump the most fundamental right to equal protection in this country. And when John McCain and others insinuate that the continuation of DADT is just not that big of a problem, he reveals a profound inability to comprehend the values of our democracy. It is akin to saying that being required to sit at the back of the bus is no big deal, that being forced to attend different schools is just not that important.

DADT not only wounds the gays and lesbians being forced to live a lie within the military, or those who are refused entry. It also signals to the nation at large that the country holds homosexuals to be less worthy of the state’s trust, respect, and protection, than everyone else. As such, it does injury to all homosexuals, and ultimately, it does violence to constitutional values of the country. The Senate ought not to accept that a policy that at best offers a highly questionable and marginal benefit to national security, should be maintained when it forces the military as an institution to do such profound harm to the democratic values that America is supposed to represent.