October 19, 2010

Scholars Urge Ninth Circuit To Question Recycled Pentagon Myths

Santa Barbara, Calif.  – The Justice Department has announced that if Judge Virginia Phillips denies the government’s request to allow the military to enforce “don’t ask, don’t tell,” it will appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. As it makes its case to the appellate court, the government likely will continue to assert that last week’s suspension of the ban entails negative consequences. It will likely suggest that any absence of negative consequences in the first week of the suspension is because gay troops have remained silent about their sexual orientation thus far.

Palm Center scholars are concerned that these assertions are premised on recyled myths and we urge the Court not to accept Pentagon assertions at face value. We would respectfully request that the Court request evidence and data to support any claims. The following are the leading myths that have characterized the military’s thinking during the week-long suspension of the ban.

Myth #1: Gays will suddenly out themselves: Pentagon leaders appear to believe that the suspension of the gay ban entails a shift in military culture from an environment in which nobody knows who is gay, to a new climate in which suddenly the troops are surrounded by peers who advertise their sexual orientation. In fact, polls by Military Times, Vote Vets and Zogby show that between 57 to 67 percent of service members know or suspect that someone is gay or lesbian in their unit. The Zogby data reveals that even in the Marine Corps, 45 percent of Marines know or suspect someone who is gay or lesbian in their unit. Other research finds that following the lifting of a gay ban, very few additional individuals come out of the closet. The reason is that the decision to reveal one’s sexual orientation is driven by the climate of the unit, not the presence or absence of a gay ban. The bottom line is that most straight troops already knew who was gay prior to the suspension of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and the numbers will not change significantly when “don’t ask, don’t tell” is permanently repealed. The silence we heard last week is the same silence we will hear when the ban is permanently repealed.

Myth #2: “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is cost-free. Pentagon leaders appear to believe that there are costs to stopping “don’t ask, don’t tell” but not keeping it. Dr. Nathaniel Frank has documented twelve types of costs that “don’t ask, don’t tell” imposes on the military, including wasting talent, harming unit cohesion, invading privacy, compromising morale, and undermining family readiness. Thus, military leaders ignore the costs of “don’t ask, don’t tell” even though scholarly research has documented such costs, and emphasize the costs of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” even though there is no evidence that such costs would materialize. Using the Blue Ribbon Commission’s conservative figure of $34,000 for the cost of each service member fired under “don’t ask, don’t tell” and an average discharge rate of one service member fired per day, the military already saved $238,000 during last week’s suspension of the ban.

Myth #3: The troops care about “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Marine Corps Commandant General James Conway says that 90 to 95 percent of Marines oppose allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly, and implies that this is a hot-button issue for the Corps. In fact, four polls of service members have found that approximately 40 percent of troops oppose repeal, 30 percent support it, and 30 percent don’t know or don’t care. What’s even more important is that the percent of troops who feel strongly about the issue is low. As early as 2003, retired NATO commander Wesley Clark said “the temperature of the issue has changed” since 1993; “people were much more irate about this issue in the early ’90s than I found in the late ’90s, for whatever reason, [perhaps because of] younger people coming into the military. It just didn’t seem to be the same emotional hot button issue by ’98, ’99, that it had been in ’92, ’93.” Statistical data confirm Clark’s point. Even those troops who oppose repeal don’t, for the most part, feel strongly about it.

Myth #4: The troops need to be taught how to interact with gays. Pentagon leaders have stated that service members require significant training to prepare for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” There is no evidence to suggest that the Pentagon provided any training to prepare the troops for last week’s suspension of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” yet the Services appear to have adjusted to the suspension without difficulty. In 1993, the RAND Corporation concluded that the keys to successful repeal are that the military must have a single code of conduct that applies equally to everyone, and that leaders must signal support for the new policy. The military already has a single code of conduct, and Under Secretary of Defense Stanley circulated a one-page memo last week instructing service members to comply with the suspension. It is unclear why, if training was unnecessary to prepare the troops for last week¹s suspension of the ban, it is needed prior the repeal of the policy. The troops already know how to interact with peers who they know to be gay and lesbian because they do so every day.

Myth #5: Repeal will increase anti-gay violence. Pentagon leaders appear to believe that some service members will react violently to the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It is important to remember that the military environment already includes anti-gay violence. A 2000 study by the Defense Department’s Inspector General found that five percent of the troops witnessed an anti-gay beating during the previous twelve months. Hence, the transition from discriminatory to inclusive policy will not cause the military to switch from a violence-free to a violent climate. Rather, there was anti-gay violence before the ban was lifted, and there will be anti-gay violence after the ban is lifted. If anything, research suggests that the repeal of the ban will diminish the rate of violence because victims will be better able to report trouble without fearing the loss of their careers, and would-be perpetrators will know this.

Last week’s dramatic talk of enormous consequences that would follow from the lifting of the ban echoes rationalizations that, for 17 years, have been put forward to justify “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The RAND Corporation concluded 17 years ago that there would be no negative consequences following the lifting of the ban, a finding which is as true today as it was then. Military leaders from Britain, Canada and Israel have stated that despite predictions of disaster, the lifting of gay bans in those countries was a non-event. It is no surprise that last week’s suspension of “don’t ask, don’t tell” proved the American military can do the same.