Did Pentagon Distort 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Survey Results?

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.