The Last Word on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
A new study shows repealing it helped the military.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images.
During the debate over “don’t ask, don’t tell”—which ended one year ago this week—Sen. John McCain insisted that ending the gay ban would do “great damage” to the military, and the commandant of the Marine Corps said it could “cost Marines’ lives.” One think-tanker agreed that we’d be taking “a risk with our lives, property and freedom.” Another declared breathlessly that, “ultimately all of civilian life will be affected.” Then there was the dire prediction that one-quarter of the military, or 500,000 troops, might quit in protest.
Underlying the debate were competing moral visions, but the claims over harm to the military were where it often played out, on both sides. Gay rights proponents countered by pointing out that there was never any evidence that openly gay service would hurt the military, and that plenty of research from foreign countries suggested the opposite. Even studies conducted by the U.S. military itself, and by the Government Accountability Office, suggested readiness would not suffer if gays served openly. The trouble was that the research was predictive, not descriptive. No one could actually say for sure what the impact on the military of ending DADT would be.
Until now. A new UCLA study, which I co-authored with other academics including military professors from all four U.S. military service academies, has assessed whether ending the gay ban has indeed harmed the armed forces. It hasn’t. Our conclusion is that ending the policy “has had no negative impact on overall military readiness or its component parts: unit cohesion, recruitment, retention, assaults, harassment or morale.”
We surveyed 200 active-duty troops before and after repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” about cohesion in their units, and analyzed data from two other surveys. We also looked at recruitment and retention figures released by the Defense Department. We interviewed dozens of military scholars and officials, gay and straight troops, and policy experts, and we examined hundreds of media stories on the issue—reading every relevant piece we could find in a systematic search. We made a special effort to uncover any damage to cohesion, morale or readiness by reaching out to all known opponents of openly gay service. This included contacting anti-gay advocacy groups who would surely be listening for, and eager to publicize, any harm that occurred, and writing to over 500 retired generals who signed a 2009 letter predicting that repeal would “undermine recruiting and retention, impact leadership at all levels, have adverse effects on the willingness of parents who lend their sons and daughters to military service, and eventually break the All-Volunteer Force.”(A “standards of evidence” discussion in the study explains how we weighed the different data types we found.)
In one survey, more than 750 active duty troops were asked three months after repeal about their morale, housing, perception of officer and troop quality, and overall quality of life—factors considered key components of military readiness. All the figures were the same or slightly higher than in a parallel survey administered in the months before repeal, meaning readiness did not drop after repeal. Recruitment and retention figures throughout the military have remained steady, and survey responses indicate that troops are just as likely to re-enlist after repeal as before. The military confirmed the premature departure of two service members—not 500,000.
Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire and a visiting scholar at Columbia’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, is writing a book called The Anti-Gay Mind.