No More Excuses
John McCain has run out of reasons to block the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
However, as the study spells out, these figures—put in perspective—are less meaningful than they seem. Among members of the armed forces who have actually worked with someone they believe to be gay, 92 percent say that the unit's effectiveness is very good, good, or "neither good nor poor" (in other words, at very least, not bad). Among Army combat soldiers who have fought alongside someone they think is gay, 89 percent think the experience hasn't hurt the unit. The same is true among 84 percent of Marine combatants.
As the report puts it, the apparent "misperception that a gay man does not 'fit' the image of a good warfighter … is almost completely erased when a gay service member is allowed to prove himself alongside fellow warfighters." In one of the interviews, a special-operations fighter said, "We have a gay guy [in the unit]. He's big, he's mean, and he kills lots of bad guys. No one cared that he was gay."
Along these lines, the report's authors conclude that, "in the short term," repeal of DADT may cause "some limited and isolated disruptions to unit cohesion and retention," but "we do not believe this disruption will be widespread or long-lasting," and it can be further diminished through proper leadership and training.
The report notes that only five other countries ban gays in the military: Bulgaria, Jordan, Poland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Over the last two decades, several countries have reversed their former bans, among them the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany, and Israel. In Canada and the United Kingdom, surveys taken just before the reversal showed 60 percent to 65 percent of service members opposed the move; many said they would leave the military if the liberalization went through. However, the actual effect on recruitment and retention turned out to be minimal.
In what should be a particularly embarrassing section to the repeal's opponents, the study draws parallels between DADT and the military's racial segregation of more than a half-century ago. In a survey of more than 2,000 enlisted men in 1946, more than 80 percent of respondents agreed with the view that "white and Negro soldiers should not work, train, and live together." About 80 percent of white officers said they would not want to be assigned to a racially integrated unit.
That was at a time when American society was deeply segregated. (President Harry Truman's act of integrating the Army truly was a social experiment.) And, of course, a soldier's skin color is obvious whereas, even after the repeal of DADT, a gay soldier can stay in the closet. (The Pentagon report cites a separate survey by the RAND Corp. in which only about 15 percent of gay servicemen and women say they'll come out, even after their open presence is legally permitted.)
The impulse to repeal DADT is not just a question of human rights or morality; it's also a matter of national security. Since 1980, according to the report, more than 32,000 active-duty servicemen and women have been discharged because of their homosexuality—13,000 of them since 1993, when the DADT law went into effect. (By the way, 85 percent of them simply announced that they were gay; only 15 percent were booted out for their behavior.)
These figures aren't huge; they amount to a little less than 1 percent of all involuntary discharges in that period. But the losses are larger than gross percentages might suggest. From 1995 to 2003, according to a report at the time by the Government Accountability Office, the military canned 322 service members who had skills in a foreign language that the Pentagon deemed important, simply because they were homosexual; 209 of them had been trained in that language at the Defense Language Institute.
In the last five years, according to data compiled by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the military has discharged more than 800 troops in "mission-critical" slots, at least 59 Arabic linguists and nine Farsi linguists, for violating "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
The evidence, the polling data of service men and women, the testimony of senior officers, the everyday experiences of living and fighting, the imperatives of national security, as well as the obvious moral standards of contemporary life—all point to, at the very least, a shift in the burden of proof on whether DADT should be repealed. It's no longer valid, and it's clearly a pretense, to call for further studies, further surveys, closer questioning. If McCain and the others oppose repeal, they have to come up with some new reason—or fall back on the oldest, most unpalatable reason—why.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Robert Gates and Mike Mullen by Win McNamee/Getty Images.