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Did Pentagon Distort ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Survey Results?

An actual read-through of the results shows much greater combat troop opposition to repeal than the public statement would have you believe.

by
Dan Miller

Bio

December 3, 2010 - 10:19 am

Top leaders of the military have recommended that the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) ban on homosexuals serving in the military be abolished, claiming that it would not unduly impair military effectiveness. However, the Pentagon study of the matter leaves substantial doubt as to that conclusion’s veracity. My doubts are principally as to the impact on combat effectiveness. Unless armed combat has vanished as the principal role of the military and the concept of “boots on the ground” has become obsolete, that is important.

(There are, of course, constitutional questions about whether DADT results in unconstitutional discrimination against homosexual members of the military. However, members of the armed forces have long and generally been recognized to have fewer constitutional rights than civilians; there are some good reasons for that, but that’s a subject for a different article.)

According to an early media report of the just released Pentagon study on elimination of DADT, it was recognized that it “might cause some disruption at first but would not create widespread or long-lasting problems.” In the absence of any explanation of “some disruptions,” “at first,” and “widespread or long-lasting,” and the lack of reference in that assertion to combat effectiveness, that is not entirely comforting.

To the extent that elimination of DADT was not a political/ideological matter to be resolved on such bases alone, there appears to have been some reliance on Department of Defense (DOD) sponsored surveys of military personnel. According to the linked news report:

The survey found that some two-thirds of troops don’t care if the ban is lifted. Of the 30 percent who objected, most of them were in combat units. … Opposition was strongest among combat troops, with at least 40 percent saying repeal would be a bad idea. That number climbed to 58 percent among Marines serving in combat roles.

If surveys such as this should be relied upon at all, responses from members of the military serving in actual combat capacities should be seen as far more important than responses from others; they are the ones whose combat effectiveness is likely to be affected, as well as those most likely to suffer any direct consequences. An analogous context might be responses to the question: “How often do you think your rifle should be disassembled and cleaned?” The response of a combat Marine in Iraq would likely not be the same as the response of a personnel clerk at the Pentagon.

The Report of the Comprehensive Review (267 pages) states:

The overall sample was almost 400,000 Service members (split evenly among active duty and reserve component forces). The response rate for this survey (28% overall), as a whole and by Service, was typical for surveys within the Department of Defense. The survey sample of military spouses was similarly designed to ensure adequate representation in terms of Service and active/reserve component. The overall sample was just over 150,000 spouses (70,000 active duty and 80,000 reserve component). The response rate for the spouse survey (29% overall) was also typical for this type of survey within the military community.

I could find no indication of the number of combat personnel on active duty, “boots on the ground,” who were surveyed. However, here are the total response rates for active duty personnel:

Army — 19%
Marine Corps — 29%
Navy — 28%
Air Force — 39%
Coast Guard — 54%

To some extent, low numbers may reflect the physical location of respondents in areas where responses were difficult to make — the front lines in Afghanistan, for example — and the high numbers may reflect ease of response from aboard ship. (It is entirely possible that many were no more able to respond (even if repeatedly asked to do so, as they were) than they had been able to vote in the November elections.)

While less than clear, the overall results of the survey were most likely slanted toward troops serving in non-combat units and those who, even though theoretically in combat “units,” were not “on the front lines” as suggested above. The mere logistics of distributing and responding to such a survey suggest this.

The full text of the Report of the Support Plan for Implementation (95 pages) suggests that attempts were made at every turn to adhere to political correctness and that valiant efforts were made to support the desired answer. Freshman Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) has said:

[He will] read every page of the DoD/Joint Chiefs of Staff report and will seek a meeting with the Chief of Naval Operations to discuss his findings before making a decision on this issue.

It seems unlikely that he will find much good red meat in the 95 single-spaced pages of the Support Plan for Implementation, as distinguished from politically driven conclusions.

He might want also to read the 267-page Report of the Comprehensive Review. As noted in the latter Report, Question 71 was:

If Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed and you are working with a Service member in your immediate unit who has said he or she is gay or lesbian, how, if at all, would it affect your immediate unit’s effectiveness at completing its mission … [asked only] of respondents with combat deployment experience since September 11, 2001.

Here are the responses in three different contexts:

In a field environment or out at sea.

11.4% very positive or positive
44.3% very negative or negative
32.9% net negative

When a crisis or negative event happens that affects your immediate unit

12.5% very positive or positive
29.4% very negative or negative
16.9% net negative

In an intense combat situation

12.4% very positive or positive
30.6% very negative or negative
18.2% net negative

Responses from those who had never been deployed or who had not been deployed into a combat environment since September 11, 2001, were substantially less negative than from those who had been so deployed.

Question 73, asked without regard to combat service, was:

If Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed and you are working with a Service member in your immediate unit who has said he or she is gay or lesbian, how, if at all, would your level of morale be affected?

The responses:

4.9% — positively or very positively
27.9% — negatively or very negatively
23% — net negative

Question 75b asked:

If Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed and you are working with a Service member in your immediate unit who has said he or she is gay or lesbian, how, if at all, would it affect your immediate unit’s readiness?

Overall, 31.8% of Marine Corps members responded that the effect would be negative or very negative; 43.5% of the Marine Corps members in combat arms responded that it would be negative or very negative. Other questions providing comparable distinctions between personnel in combat roles and those not so assigned produced similar results. For the military overall, the positive/very positive response was 6.8% and the negative/very negative response was 21.2%.

The Report notes:

The responses of Marines and of Army and Marine combat arms were similarly more negative than the force overall in response to questions about unit cohesion. For example, question 68a asked Service members about the impact of repeal on their unit’s ability to “work together” — an aspect of task cohesion. While slightly under 30% of Service members as a whole predicted repeal would have a negative impact, that number was 43% among the Marine Corps, 48% among Army combat arms, and 58% among Marine combat arms.

The principal function of the military has historically been to kill people and to break things. That is a function of combat troops, and rear echelon, non-combat troops don’t do much of it. President Obama’s recent remarks to the West Point graduating class about his vision of the future of the military, as commented upon in National Review, seemingly disregard this:

Obama outlined for the cadets his vision of a new international order organized around bodies such as the United Nations. In Obama’s future, American military force will give way to American diplomacy joined together with new multilateral partnerships, while “stronger international standards and institutions” will replace unilateral assertion of national interests — including our own. Obama told West Point’s Class of 2010 that he sees them not battling our enemies but “combating a changing climate and sustaining global growth, [and] helping countries feed themselves” even as their citizens achieve their “universal rights.”

A transcript of the address is here. President Obama’s address wasn’t quite that bad, and it did include some obligatory references to going into harm’s way and doing one’s duty. Still, his basic focus was as capsulized in the National Review article. If that is the direction the military is to take, combat effectiveness is of less than even secondary importance. However, that is a very naive direction. The same is true of recent rules of engagement reflecting that direction. Quite probably, many of the combat troops who responded and who are said to be unhappy about homosexuals serving openly in the military feel the same way about the “new and improved” rules of engagement.

The United States is now engaged in military operations in two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is possible that number may increase, conceivably to include Korea and Iran; there is no way to know whether if that happens it will be in the “short” or “long” term.” There are appropriate times to conduct social experiments and there are times when it is not appropriate to do so. Now seems to fall into the latter category.

On the day of the release of the Pentagon report, President Obama stated:

As Commander in Chief, I have pledged to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law because it weakens our national security, diminishes our military readiness, and violates fundamental American principles of fairness and equality by preventing patriotic Americans who are gay from serving openly in our armed forces. At the same time, as Commander in Chief, I am committed to ensuring that we understand the implications of this transition, and maintain good order and discipline within our military ranks. That is why I directed the Department of Defense earlier this year to begin preparing for a transition to a new policy.

With our nation at war and so many Americans serving on the front lines, our troops and their families deserve the certainty that can only come when an act of Congress ends this discriminatory policy once and for all. The House of Representatives has already passed the necessary legislation. Today I call on the Senate to act as soon as possible so I can sign this repeal into law this year and ensure that Americans who are willing to risk their lives for their country are treated fairly and equally.

President Obama did not mention why it is essential to him that DADT be repealed by the present Congress; it is obvious and there was no need. It is, however, significant that he drew no distinction between combat troops and non-combat troops and seemed to have disregarded even the overall predominance of negative over positive views as to military effectiveness. Those are very important factors and what information the report provides suggests that President Obama set out to affirm the preconceived views on which he campaigned prior to (and indeed after) the 2008 elections, and for which he then had and still has no apparent basis other than political/ideological.

The Pentagon report suggests to me that elimination of DADT will more likely retard than enhance military effectiveness; that strikes me as something to be considered very seriously.

Since Gates’ statement, that consideration seems to be happening. Based largely on the survey described above, the chiefs of the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Army disagree with the report’s conclusion that the impact on combat readiness would be “low.” Senator McCain seems to be leading the charge:

In tense exchanges with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, McCain and other Republicans dismissed a Pentagon study on gays as biased and said objections by combat troops were being ignored.

Questions have also been raised about the composition of participants in “focus” groups and the geographical areas from which they were drawn. An editorial in the Washington Times notes:

From the outset, the Pentagon had no interest in eliciting honest responses from the troops about whether the law outlawing homosexual conduct in the ranks should be preserved or repealed. Instead, soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines were addressed in terms implying that repeal is inevitable. The Obama Administration leaked selected results to sympathetic media to create the illusion that the troops have no problem stacking the barracks and submarines with homosexuals. The final report’s release is a last-ditch effort to provide Democratic members of Congress the cover they need to ram through the law’s repeal in the lame-duck session.

It isn’t going to work. Sixty-three percent of respondents live off-base or in civilian housing and consequently answered that a change in policy might not affect them. Those in combat roles — where unit cohesion and trust are life-and-death concerns — gave a different response. About half with combat experience said a change would have a negative or very negative impact in the field or at sea. Among Marine combat troops, two-thirds said combat readiness would suffer.

Perhaps that’s why the working group held 51 “information exchange forums” at bases only in the United States, Germany, and Japan. Minimizing the views of those serving in combat situations in Iraq and Afghanistan helped further dilute the potential for a negative response.

It would be mere speculation even to question whether the “empirical” survey and “information exchange forums” were undertaken with a view to undermining the ostensible results to be reported initially, and thus to lay a foundation for blunting any subsequent criticism should DADT be repealed with the response that: “Well, you guys had the full report.” Nevertheless, most anything is possible.

Dan Miller graduated from Yale University in 1963 and from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1966. He retired from the practice of law in Washington, D.C., in 1996 and has lived in a rural area in Panama since 2002.
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