Fresh Breeze Blowing in the Pentagon

The 65,000 gays and lesbians in the military today, the 13,500 who have been discharged because of the law known as "don't ask, don't tell," my colleagues, and I have something we can really cheer about today: an Air Force colonel writing in the new issue of the "authoritative, official U.S. Department of Defense edition" of JFQ (Joint Force Quarterly) reiterates what we've been saying for a long time now: "It is not time for the administration to reexamine the issue; rather, it is time for the administration to examine how to implement the repeal of the ban."

That's the closest we've ever come to recognition in an official Pentagon publication that "don't ask, don't tell" has got to go, and go soon. Yes, there are the standard disclaimers--"the opinions, conclusions, and recommendations" are those of the author and "do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense"--but we can live with that. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen, is, after all, the publisher of the scholarly quarterly that describes itself as "the Chairman's flagship joint military and security studies journal." Each issue begins with his own introductory column and the New York Times reports that his office reviewed the essay before publication.

The author of the prize-winning essay, Colonel Om Prakash, argues in four thousand forceful words against the ban on gays in the military and in favor of open service. It was written while he was a student at the National War College and it won the 2009 Secretary of Defense National Security Essay Competition--although, as I said earlier, it does not necessarily reflect Secretary Gates's views, either.

The Boston Globe broke the story Wednesday morning, and Elizabeth Bumiller followed up on the front page of the New York Times website Wednesday evening and inside its paper editions this morning.

Despite the standard disclaimers, the essay titled "The Efficacy of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'" certainly sends a powerful signal that in Bob Dylan's words, "the times they are a-changin'." There seems to be a fresh breeze blowing in the Pentagon; now it has to blow through Capitol Hill and the White House.

Colonel Om cites five central issues in regard to the law. I am going to quote him in full.

First, [the law] has had a significant cost in both personnel and treasure. Second, the stated premise of the law--to protect unit cohesion and combat effectiveness--is not supported by any scientific studies. Strong emotional appeals are available to both sides. However, societal views have grown far more accommodating in the last 16 years, and there are now foreign military experiences that the United States can draw from. Third, it is necessary to consider the evidence as to whether homosexuality is a choice, as the courts have traditionally protected immutable characteristics. To date, though, the research remains inconclusive. Fourth, the law as it currently stands does not prohibit homosexuals from serving in the military as long as they keep it secret. This has led to an uncomfortable value disconnect as homosexuals serving, estimated to be over 65,000, must compromise personal integrity. Given the growing gap between social mores and the law, DADT may do damage to the very unit cohesion that it seeks to protect [italics mine]. Finally, it has placed commanders in a position where they are expected to know everything about their troops except this one aspect.

Colonel Om takes on each of these issues dispassionately and rationally. He appears to be the ideal disinterested observer; that is, he follows the arguments wherever they lead and has no personal stake in the outcome.

The essay effectively demolishes the "unit cohesion" argument, the supposed reason for the ban in the first place and the driving force behind the rants of Elaine Donnelly from the Center for Military Readiness. "Furthermore . . .there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that unit cohesion will be negatively affected if homosexuals serve openly." In fact, the colonel notes, it's unlikely to make any difference.

The author splits unit cohesion into two elements, task cohesion--the shared commitment and motivation that make a unit effective in combat--and social cohesion, which is the emotional bond among members of the group. It boils down to whether the guys in the unit feel like hanging out together. Task cohesion is the more important element in combat effectiveness. Then the author comes to an interesting conclusion: "Almost counterintuitively . . . in some situations, high social cohesion is actually deleterious to the group's decision-making process, leading to . . . groupthink. This does not imply that low social cohesion is advantageous, but that moderate levels are optimal."

In countries where gays now serve openly--Canada, Britain, Australia, Israel, and twenty-something others--no "mass exodus" occurred when the bans were lifted. There was no "mass coming-out," either. The cost of maintaining the ban over a ten-year period, which the Government Accountability Office in 1995 estimated to be at least $190.5 million, was actually $383 million, according to a study by a commission that included former Defense Secretary William Perry. The GAO had failed to include recruiting and separation costs, and neither report included the additional costs of losing prized specialists such as Arabic speakers. That may be a drop in the bucket of the Pentagon's billions, but it's real money to taxpayers.

In the end, it comes down to this: "in an attempt to allow homosexual servicemembers to serve quietly, a law was created that forces a compromise in integrity, conflicts with the American creed of 'equality for all,' places commanders in difficult moral dilemmas, and is ultimately more damaging to the unit cohesion that its stated purpose is to preserve."

Now that the Defense Department has gone--however unofficially--this far, it should be easier for both Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen to go the rest of the distance and let the President, the Congress, and the country know that they get it, too. The logical next step would be a Defense Department endorsement of the recommendations in Colonel Prakash's essay. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who supports repeal, wrote Secretary Gates and President Obama last week, asking them to bring to Congress their recommendations on DADT. "Your leadership in this matter . . . is needed at this time."

It certainly is. Over to you, Mr. President. Over to you, Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen. And in the end, over to you, Members of Congress.