For years, defenders of anti-gay exclusion in the military have claimed that equal treatment was incompatible with a strong military. For nearly as many years, researchers pointed out that there was no evidence to support this claim that letting gays serve openly would harm cohesion, recruitment, or readiness, and that all the data actually showed the opposite: discrimination and dishonesty were what undermined the military; equal treatment strengthened respect for military law, helped expand the pool of qualified recruits, and removed an impetus for harassment and denigration that are anathema to good order and discipline.
This week marks a full year since Congress passed, and President Obama signed, the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010." It also marks three months since the new policy of open service went into effect. So how do we assess the change, and, equally important, now that it's behind us, does it even matter anymore?
During the years I spent researching and writing about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," I frequently pointed out that when other countries lifted their bans, nothing bad happened. But people weren't convinced that the same would hold true here. As my colleague Aaron Belkin has theorized, in the U.S., fear and anxiety about change had swelled into full-blown paranoia. And this sentiment was being exploited and inflamed by political opportunists. There is even firsthand evidence that military and cultural leaders exaggerated the threat to unit cohesion throughout the debate over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," in an effort to give credibility to what was, at bottom, simple prejudice.
This is why assessing the ultimate impact of ending "Don't Ask, Don' Tell" matters. And it matters enormously. Throughout our history, opponents of equal treatment have insisted that it would wreak havoc on society, indeed that it would cause such grave disruptions that equality was an unacceptable threat to civilization. This "disruption" theory was wielded against African Americans, immigrants, women, gays and lesbians, and transgender people, to name a few. It is perhaps the sharpest tool in the arsenal of people who refuse to rise above passions and prejudice, but who know that they can't win their argument using religious and moral dogma alone. So they deploy arguments that sound secular and pragmatic -- equality will somehow harm kids, undermine the family, destroy civilization -- to mask what really amounts to feelings of discomfort, resentment or simple opposition to sharing first-class citizenship.
The "disruption" theory was exactly what was applied -- and finally defeated -- in the effort to keep gay people from serving openly in uniform. For years, we heard that lifting the ban would undermine cohesion, spur a mass exodus of troops from service, hurt military families, and actually cost lives, that it would disrupt our defenses, weaken our country, and threaten civilization. Yet the ban ended three months ago, with little fanfare. Were all the naysayers wrong? Have any of them been held accountable? And will opponents of equality going forward get away with using the same "disruption" theory to convince policymakers to oppose full equality for LGBT and other Americans?
Because that's what they're trying. We hear that letting gay couples marry will disrupt the social fabric of American life, undermine marriage, kill a "culture of life," dry up the Western population, and threaten our civilization. If this is what was said about gay people serving openly (which it was), and if none of it happened, then the lesson is monumental: a culture of anxiety has become a politics of paranoia, which has pulled the wool over our collective eyes in service to maintaining an unjust status quo. Will we let it happen again and again and again? Will anyone be held accountable for steering us so terribly wrong?
We don't yet know if openly gay service will turn out to do zero harm to the military's readiness, as has been the case elsewhere. Next spring, I will co-author a study for the Palm Center to assess this question, and the Pentagon will be doing its own version of the same. In the meantime, today I am releasing a provisional framework for evaluating the change. The report, "Accountability and DADT," documents -- all in one place -- 60 of the main predictions of disruption that would allegedly result from openly gay service, and the names of the people who made them.
Below are excerpts of some of the most dire predictions. They include remarks by Sen. John McCain that lifting the ban will mean "doing great damage" to the military and will likely "harm battle effectiveness." They include warnings by Gen. Colin Powell, one of the most admired Americans in recent history, who insisted that openly gay service would be "prejudicial to good order and discipline" -- the very same words that were used to keep African Americans like Powell in segregated and inferior positions. Powell, whose great rise benefited from the boldness of greater leaders than he, never had the courage to say he was wrong, and never was willing to step out ahead of the pack -- the measure of true leadership -- and call for an end to a form of discrimination he should have found unacceptable from the start.
And they include the words of Gen. James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, who said that lifting the ban could "cost Marines' lives." After the ban was lifted, Amos reported, however, that the development was a "nonevent" and that he was "very pleased with how it has gone." Not once during a tour through Afghanistan to meet with troops did a question about the repeal come up. A Pentagon spokeswoman echoed that implementation had proceeded smoothly across the military.
Explaining his opposition to repeal, Amos had pointed to a poll finding that about half of Marines viewed repeal negatively. He claims he was duty-bound to base his position on that one statistic (an opinion poll, not even an empirical study of the effects of openly gay service), despite years of documented evidence to the contrary that Amos was surely exposed to. Yet astoundingly, Amos said recently that despite being wrong about his predictions, "I think I did exactly what I should have done."
This kind of accountability makes the Wall Street titans who created the financial crisis look like poster children for personal responsibility. (At least Amos and Powell ultimately came around, unlike McCain and the rearguard GOP candidates and Congress members who continue to rail against equality in the military.)
Prejudice is not illegal. Neither is paranoia or its political exploitation. But accountability is essential to justice -- past, present, and future. The next time you have a discussion about the costs and benefits of equal treatment, remember (whatever your position) what history shows: opponents of equality always claim it will disrupt society; almost always, it doesn't. If this holds true for ending DADT, will the naysayers have the courage to say, "I was wrong"?
Sample Predictions of Harm and Disruption Resulting from Openly Gay Military Service (from the new report, "Accountability and DADT"):
"[Lifting the ban] may even prove decisive to the viability of the all-volunteer force. That viability may, in turn, determine our ability to avoid in the years ahead -- as we have for the past four decades -- a return to conscription to meet our requirements for warriors in those conflicts."
--Frank Gaffney, Jr., Center for Security Policy, 2011
"I hope that when we pass this legislation that we will understand that we are doing great damage, and we could possibly and probably -- as the commandant of the Marine Corps said and I've been told by literally thousands of members of the military -- harm the battle effectiveness, which is so vital to the support, to the survival of our young men and women in the military."
--Sen. John McCain, 2010
"[Surveys suggest that if the ban is lifted, a minimum of] 24,000 current members of the armed forces might be lost over and above normal discharge attrition in a one-to-three year period... Because these personnel would be completing one or more terms of service, they would, in fact, represent a hemorrhage of mature, skilled losses from the professional ranks. This is an enormous risk to the viability of our armed forces."
--General Carl Mundy, former Commandant of the Marine Corps, 2010, in a letter addressing Congress
"When your life hangs on the line, you don't want anything distracting... Mistakes and inattention or distractions cost Marines' lives... Assimilating openly homosexual Marines into the tightly woven fabric of our combat units has strong potential for disruption at the small unit level."
--General James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, 2010, discussing his reasons for opposing openly gay service
"If the law is overturned and open homosexuals are welcomed into the military, the number of homosexuals in the armed forces can only increase -- leading to a corresponding increase in same-sex sexual assaults."
--Peter Sprigg, Family Research Council, 2010
"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?"
--James Bowman, Ethics and Public Policy Center, 2009
"The core values of the military profession would be seen by many to have changed fundamentally if homosexuals were allowed to serve. This would undermine institutional loyalty and the moral basis for service, sacrifice, and commitment."
--Military Working Group on homosexuality in the military, 1993 (the military's official 1993 report on ending LGB exclusion)
"[Openly gay service would be] prejudicial to good order and discipline."
--General Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1992