March 5, 2010

Palm Center Responds To McPeak NYT Op-Ed

SANTA BARBARA, CA, – The Palm Center released the following statement today by Dr. Aaron Belkin, Palm’s Director and Professor of Political Science at University of California, Santa Barbara:

Former Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill McPeak published an op-ed in the New York Times claiming that during the 1993 debate over gays in the military, “A lot more heat than light was produced” and that as the nation reconsiders the isse this year, “I doubt that we’ll have a more enlightened public discussion in 2010.”

The way to have an enlightened public conversation is to offer reasoned claims based on evidence and research, and to characterize and evaluate opposing arguments honestly.  Gen. McPeak fails this test in his op-ed.

Gen. McPeak says an enlightened discussion should begin by asking, “What are the armed forces for?” The military exists to defend the nation, specifically by preparing for, and fighting, our wars. The U.S., however, is not just a piece of turf but a way of life that prizes equal citizenship under the law. A truly enlightened debate involves broadly weighing the costs and benefits of depriving one group of citizens the opportunity to serve their country; it should not involve issuing vague assertions designed simply to preserve the status quo.

Gen. McPeak claims that “advocates for gays in the service have by and large avoided a discussion of unit cohesion” which ought to be the main focus of the debate. This is simply false. There are at least twenty studies from the last fifty years, many written by the military’s own researchers, which find that gay and lesbian troops do not harm cohesion. As an article published by the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff concludes, “there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that unit cohesion will be negatively affected if homosexuals serve openly.”

Gen. McPeak also claims there is no evidence that troops will fight more effectively when the gay ban is repealed.  In fact, research shows that the ban itself undermines cohesion and readiness.  A bipartisan study group of Flag and General Officers which took a year to assess all of the evidence on “don’t ask, don’t tell” found that commanders in Iraq are ignoring the policy and choosing to keep their teams together rather than firing loyal gay troops.  A recent Military Times poll confirms that many commanders know of gays and lesbians serving in their units, but choose not to discharge them, suggesting that these leaders believe that known gays help rather than hurt the force.

Finally, Gen. McPeak has acknowledged publicly that when there is a tradeoff between pursuing moral values and military effectiveness, he prefers the former, even at the expense of the latter.  He opposed women in combat in the 1990s, saying he had “personal prejudices” against expanding combat roles for women, “even though logic tells us” that women can conduct combat operations just as well as men.  He actually told Congress that he would choose an inferior male flight instructor over a superior female one even if it made for a “militarily less effective situation.” “I admit it doesn’t make much sense,” he said, “but that’s the way I feel about it.” Elsewhere he repeated that his position did not meet “strict evidence standards for logic,” but that that did not change his position, a direct contradiction to his claim that he seeks to engage in an enlightened debate.

Under the guise of protecting unit cohesion, defenders of the gay exclusion rule would have us believe that they are simply looking out for the nation’s defense.  What they are actually doing is using government policy to express moral animus. The reason to be disappointed by Gen. Merrill McPeak and others sharing his strategy is that their views have little to do with unit cohesion, and everything to do with an effort to encode prejudice into law and make the public believe that there is a national security rationale for doing so.  That is a dangerous precedent.