Refuting the Latest Arguments Against Gay Troops

Defenses of the military's gay ban have long been rooted in the moral belief that homosexuality is wrong, but its champions cast their defense of the policy in terms of the famous "unit cohesion" rationale.
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In a recent Weekly Standard article, James Bowman argues that the U.S. should not lift the ban on openly gay service in the military because it would undercut notions of masculine honor that ensure combat motivation and cohesion. Bowman is a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, whose mission is "to clarify and reinforce the bond between the Judeo-Christian moral tradition and the public debate over domestic and foreign policy issues." While defenses of the military's gay ban have long been rooted in the moral belief that homosexuality is wrong, many of its champions have recognized that morality alone may be an insufficient tool to persuade the nation to maintain an anti-gay policy. As a result, they have cast their defense of the policy in terms of the famous "unit cohesion" rationale, which says that, whatever you or I might think of homosexuality, our troops will not be able to serve with known gays or lesbians, who must therefore be excluded to preserve unit cohesion.

Below is a point-by-point refutation of Bowman's article, which is marred by errors and assumptions that do not serve to forward the debate over service by open gays and lesbians. You can also listen to a debate between me and Bowman on NPR. To summarize my critique: Bowman's argument is a theory, not based on any evidence, that relies on several assumptions: that what motivates 18-year-olds in 21st-century America to fight wars is a particular conception of honor; that that honor is defined by having an exclusively male, heterosexual identity; and by the further belief that a straight man's honor relies on not having gay peers. This is a conception of honor which harks back to the pre-WWI era and which even Bowman acknowledges was rejected by American culture following that era and has not been revived since, despite the best efforts of social and military conservatives. Yet when you turn to actual research on combat motivation, you find that the most important factor motivating combat in the modern age is not honor, but peers: you do it for your buddy. And saying to a peer, "I'm going to be sharing a foxhole with you, I need to trust you, so lie to me about who you really are," is not a recipe for honor or cohesion. Honor and masculinity may play a role in military bonding, but neither one, in the year 2009, is tethered to heterosexuality or homophobia as they may have been in days gone by. Above all, Bowman's theory is belied by reality on the ground: the existence of straights and known gays fighting effectively together throughout not only twenty-five foreign militaries but our own U.S. armed forces, where two thirds of troops know or suspect gays in their units. And by the way: there is plenty of honor among women in the military, who have been motivated enough to go into harm's way since 2001 like no time in our history, and have racked up hundreds of casualties as badges of their honor.


BOWMAN: "Actually, there is no 'don't ask, don't tell' law."

RESPONSE: A recent talking point from opponents of openly gay service has it that the statute passed by Congress never endorsed "don't ask, don't tell." Instead, conservatives claim, the law says homosexuals are "ineligible" to serve, whether open or not. This is false. The law (10 U.SC. § 654) recommends that the military cease asking recruits if they are gay, hence "don't ask." And as Bowman himself writes, the law says that "the presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts" (emphasis added) creates an unacceptable risk to the military. This is the "don't tell" prong; it doesn't say that any homosexual creates that risk, only those who "demonstrate" their homosexuality, i.e. tell. And the law clearly stipulates dismissal only if one's homosexual acts or orientation becomes known.

BOWMAN: "'Don't ask, don't tell' is of course the name given to the executive order by Bill Clinton which was designed at once to implement and to circumvent this law."

RESPONSE: There was no executive order. President Clinton promised to sign one but never did. Instead the Pentagon developed, in a compromise with the political leadership, a policy that Defense Secretary Les Aspin called "don't ask, don't tell" that said sexual orientation was a private matter and would not be a bar to military service. However, the policy was announced in July 1993, before the law was passed that November, so it couldn't have been designed to, as Bowman charges, "circumvent this law."

BOWMAN: "An executive order from [the President] allowing homosexuals equal status in the military would be in defiance of the law as written by Congress."

RESPONSE: This is false. In passing a 1983 law that is still in effect, 10 U.S.C. § 12305 ("Authority of the President to Suspend Certain Laws Relating to Promotion, Retirement, and Separation"), Congress granted the president authority to halt military separations, "notwithstanding any other provision of law," which includes the section of U.S. statute governing gays in the military. It reads: "The President may suspend any provision of law relating to promotion, retirement, or separation applicable to any member of the armed forces who the President determines is essential to the national security of the United States."

BOWMAN: "The left has nothing better to offer than riding roughshod over the opinions of the majority of servicemen--58 percent in the latest Military Times poll--and repealing the law. The same poll found that 10 percent of respondents would leave the service if gays were allowed openly to serve and another 14 percent would consider leaving. We have at least to take seriously the possibility that this would be the price of treating military service as a human right."

RESPONSE: There are two problems with the use of polling to defend military policy. First, the military simply does not poll its enlisted personnel to set policy. There was no poll asking 18-year-old enlisted men whether they felt like invading Iraq. This doesn't mean the sentiments of those who fight our wars don't matter; they do. But activists tend to cite such polls only when they seem to support their pre-existing position. And if America had based the decision to end racial segregation in the military on polls, we would just now be getting around to ending that scourge on our nation's history.

Second, these polls are both unscientific and off-topic. They were not based on a representative sampling but on subscribers to a military journal. More important, much larger percentages of respondents also swore they would leave the military in Britain and Canada when they were polled prior to lifting their bans, but when the bans were ended anyway, almost no one left. This is because polls measure attitudes, but don't predict behavior, especially when there are institutional pressures to respond to such a poll in a way that toes a party line. For all these reasons, it would be disingenuous for a serious policy analyst to take this poll "seriously" as a likely indicator of a mass exodus from the military.

BOWMAN: "There are all kinds of people -- the very young and the very old, the sick or disabled, violent criminals or, in combat roles, women -- whom we regard as unfit to be soldiers. The fact that open homosexuals are also excluded cannot by itself be considered an injustice."

RESPONSE: Of course we have standards in the military, and those who are unfit are excluded. What's at issue is whether homosexuals are unfit, just by virtue of being gay or lesbian. Even the military's own studies have found no evidence ever impugning the suitability of homosexuals for military service. And the "unit cohesion" rationale, which states that gays can be good soldiers but the negative attitudes of their peers requires that open homosexuality be banned, has also never been rooted in empirical evidence. Without a compelling rationale for exclusion, such exclusion is considered by most to be unjust.

In addition, the military routinely waives exclusions even if it means lowering its standards. Violent criminals are excluded from the military, except when they're not: As the Iraq War wore on and recruitment slots became harder to fill, the number of felony waivers granted by the Army more than doubled in three years, reaching to more than 900 in 2006, according to the Pentagon. These included aggravated assault, burglary, robbery and vehicular homicide, and in at least one case, "making terrorist threats." Between 2003 and 2006, over 100,000 criminals were allowed to serve in uniform, over 4,000 of them felons.

BOWMAN: "If reason were to be readmitted to the debate, we might find something in the history of military honor to justify the principle now enshrined in the law decreeing that 'homosexuality is incompatible with military service.' We know that soldiering... is inextricably bound up with ideas of masculinity... 'Being a man' typically does mean for soldiers both being brave, stoic, etc.--and being heterosexual.... [and] includes the honor of being known for heterosexuality."

RESPONSE: First, the law nowhere says that "homosexuality is incompatible with military service." This was an error repeated by the late Charles Moskos, who is credited as an architect of "don't ask, don't tell" (perhaps referring to rhetoric from Congressional hearings) but the phrase does not appear in the law.

Secondly, there is enormous research on what motivates soldiers to fight and the single most important factor is one's peers. Traditional concepts of honor and understandings of masculinity can figure into these motivations, but there is simply no research showing that soldiers must believe that their ranks are free from homosexuals in order to maintain the motivation to fight. In addition to the twenty-five foreign militaries that now allow gays to serve openly, the best evidence that openly gay service works comes from the U.S. military, where two thirds of service members know or suspect gays in their units, and three quarters say they are "personally comfortable" around gays. In addition, there have been hundreds of female casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, where women fight on the front lines of these guerilla wars, where combat and "non-combat" are increasingly blurred, as gunners, drivers, and truck commanders, performing bomb disposal, counterintelligence and more. Masculine honor cannot explain the combat motivations of women, yet they fight and die for their country.

BOWMAN: "This is not, of course, to say that homosexuals are weak or cowardly -- only that the reputation of manliness, which we know to be an important component of military honor, is in practice incompatible with the imputation either of homosexuality or of weakness and cowardice."

RESPONSE: Research suggests that many people believe that others are more homophobic than they are. The debate over gay service has often been characterized by the "imaginary friend" trick where opponents of gay service claim they have no problem with gay people, but everyone else will. While military honor is an important part of military culture, concepts of honor are not stagnant, and the presence of known gays in our current military, where straight peers report high morale and cohesion, is testament to the changing conceptualization of honor in 21st-century America.

BOWMAN: "What if [proponents of lifting the ban] are wrong? Is there any way to find out without taking a real risk with national security? Are the advocates of gays in the military prepared to say, fiat justitia, ruat caelum ['Let justice be done, though the sky may fall']? And if so, do the rest of us, the majority of gays and straights alike who would prefer not to take such a risk with our lives, property, and freedom, have any say in the matter?"

RESPONSE: It is incorrect to suggest that the majority of Americans prefer not to risk the consequences of repeal, when polls consistently show that 70-80% of Americans favor repeal. As for the question of whether Americans who are concerned about their lives, property and freedom have a "say" in the question of whether to let open gays serve, the numerous polls routinely asking respondents about their opinion on this issue show that they do have a say.

More to the point, this argument is made despite the fact that no evidence has ever shown that gay service creates a greater risk in the military than straight service. Even if it was a substantial risk, the military takes risks every day. Indeed, war fighting is all about risk assessment and management. Only when it comes to gays and lesbians, is a line drawn in the sand, with a declaration that no risks are allowed. Yet, a 2008 report by a bi-partisan panel of retired flag and general officers concluded that the "Evidence shows that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly is unlikely to pose any significant risk to morale, good order, discipline, or cohesion." The panel further found that the "unacceptable risk" phrase in the current law was put in without consulting research and that if that risk did exist 16 years ago, there is reason to believe it no longer does: "In 1993, the finding of 'unacceptable risk' was based on the views of currently serving service members and military leaders, and on the experiences of foreign militaries. However, the group was not able to find any evidence to suggest that the finding of unacceptable risk remains valid."

BOWMAN: "[Gays in the military] are unwilling to make the presumably lesser sacrifice of being publicly reticent about their sexual behavior -- or the sacrifice of not being in the military."

RESPONSE: Hundreds of American troops have been discharged under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy despite their reticence about their private lives, based on third parties, monitored emails, tapped phone calls, sexual harassment, etc. In addition, the policy does not simply require reticence about "sexual behavior" but about identity -- defined as having a "propensity or intent" to engage in homosexual acts. In addition, the "presumably lesser sacrifice" of reticence or of staying out of uniform has high costs both to individuals and national security: troops who can't speak openly to chaplains, psychologists, and doctors because of forced "reticence" cannot access the support services that straights rely on for mental and physical health, readiness, and morale; and the thousands of Americans who are fired or barred from service due to the policy have contributed to grave shortfalls in Arabic linguists, military police, and scores of other badly-needed specialists to fight our wars.

BOWMAN: "In fact, we do not know and we cannot know what our armed forces would be like under such conditions."

RESPONSE: "Such conditions," which refer to openly gay service, already exist in the U.S. military (as mentioned above, two thirds of troops know or suspect gays in their units), and so we absolutely know what happens under such conditions: nothing. It is naïve to interpret current military policy and U.S. law barring known homosexuals to mean that there actually are not known gays in uniform. The evidence of known gays being sent to war is enormous and comes from numerous unconnected sources ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the Congressional Research Service.

BOWMAN: "The advocates of allowing open homosexuals to serve often cite the example of Israel or Britain, both of which have integrated homosexuals into their military services apparently without incident. But they have done so in circumstances which do not allow for any objective assessment of the success or failure of the experiment... In Britain, the change came about in response to an order from the European Court of Human Rights, whose decrees have the force of law. For this reason, it would not be in the interest of any officer who valued his career prospects to remark upon any problems that the presence of gay soldiers, sailors, or airmen might be causing in their armed forces. Nor has the performance of the British Army in Iraq or the Royal Navy in the Persian Gulf been such as to render all suspicion of damage to morale, good order, and discipline ridiculous."

RESPONSE: Numerous objective assessments have been performed of many of the twenty-five nations that now let gay troops serve openly. In several cases, the British government assessed the transitions in evaluations that were not meant for public consumption but were requested by the Ministry of Defence for its own operational needs, hence ensuring an honest assessment rather than a public relations stunt. Only when leaked to the press were the conclusions--that openly gay service was an unbridled success -- made public. The idea that no military officer can honestly evaluate standing law or policy is absurd, and is belied by the recent publication in Joint Force Quarterly of a report by an active duty Air Force colonel calling for repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." The above reasoning that raises suspicion about the results of openly gay service in Britain must raise the same suspicion about America's current gay ban: If the imperfect performance of the British military in Iraq and the Persian Gulf casts doubt on the merit of openly gay service, then the failure of the U.S. to prevail in Afghanistan casts the same doubt on our current policy of banning open gays.

BOWMAN: "The robust heterosexual... knows, or believes, what it seems the homosexual cannot know or believe, or doesn't want to know or believe, namely that the two sorts of love [brotherly and erotic] are different in kind and not just in degree. The resistance from military men to the idea of gays in the military seems to be due to this perception... Eros is so strong that it corrupts and destroys the other kinds of love."

RESPONSE: Putting aside the question of what makes a heterosexual "robust," the idea that all gay people refuse to distinguish between brotherly and erotic love is simply bizarre. More to the point, the idea that open gays must be banned from the military because erotic love destroys military friendships is belied by the millions of healthy bonds in both the U.S. and foreign militaries that have open gays throughout their ranks.

BOWMAN: "The more than 1,100 flag and general officers who recently declared their support for the existing law were motivated, as they claim, by genuine concern for national security and not by bigotry."

RESPONSE: It is impossible to know the motives of those 1100 officers, but a few facts are known about this group: first, according to a PBS inquiry, not all of those who appear on the list gave their permission to be used as signatories, and several are dead; second, the majority of the officers have not served in the military this century and never served under the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy; third the list was compiled by a political organization that was found in a leaked email to be searching for "gay horror stories" in the military to help make its case against gays in uniform, even though its president acknowledged such stories would be "very difficult to find."

It is not news that there are thousands of Americans with prior military service who oppose homosexuality in the military; but the above petition is not based on evaluating any new research or information, whereas over 100 flag officers, including two former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have now called for repeal based on assessing extensive evidence showing that openly gay service works.

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