Friday, March 5, 2010

Will Repealing DADT Damage Our Military Readiness?

I've written before about what I see as the proper way to think about Don't Ask, Don't Tell:

It's undeniable that DADT has had an effect on and recruitment rates. However, if this is a primary concern for policymakers, then the real question is: How would repealing DADT impact retention and recruitment rates?
Today, the NYT offers a well-reasoned op-ed by retired Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill McPeak.

McPeak makes a similar point regarding recruitment and retention, but goes a bit further to make his case. If anti-discrimination legislation applies to the military, he asks, must exclusions based on physical or mental characteristics -- weight, height, IQ -- also be overturned?

I'm not sure of the legalities here, but practically I think McPeak is taking his argument too far. There is a big difference between denying homosexuals the right to serve openly and waiving weight and height requirements. (In fact, it's important to note that the military has eased its standards in recent years because of declining recruitment.)

Homosexuality may impact unit cohesion, but it's not akin to severe asthma, for example, which might make the soldier unfit for duty. Being a homosexual does not make an individual any less qualified to serve.

Over the past few year, the military has issued more waivers for things like criminal conduct than ever before -- without, to my knowledge, seriously considering the impact on unit morale. If we're interested in consistency, why hasn't the military put more effort into studying whether soldiers with criminal records could potentially undermine unit cohesion or reduce military readiness? McPeak makes no mention of this.

I do think that McPeak is correct to suggest that the method of cost accounting employed by advocates of repeal is extremely one-sided. He also makes the important point that "many . . . removals would have occurred in any case, since they were the result of unacceptable conduct and not just a declaration of sexual orientation." But he's simply wrong to imply that standards on sexuality are comparable to other kinds of enlistment standards.

McPeak's second argument focuses on the history of desegregation in the military:

There is also some misunderstanding about President Harry Truman’s executive order of 1948, calling for equality in the armed forces, which is often cited as a model that President Obama should follow. No doubt Truman’s action was a landmark in the civil rights struggle. However, the order was not actually sufficient inducement for the armed forces to do the right thing.

At the time, the Air Force had prepared itself for racial integration and its leadership pushed hard to make it work. As a consequence, the integration of blacks in the Air Force is one of the great success stories of the civil rights movement.

The Army and Navy, however, were models of passive resistance. The Air Force had nearly completed integration before the Army really started. Technically, Truman’s order made no reference to ending segregation, speaking only of equality of opportunity and treatment regardless of “race, color, religion or national origin.” And the Army, at first, argued it was in full compliance. Its subsequent integration was largely forced on it by combat losses in all-white units during the first months of the Korean War. The Navy continued much of its policy of tokenism into the 1960s, with a black steward corps still waiting tables 10 years after the executive order.

Harry Truman did not simply pass his hand over the Pentagon and bring about racial justice. Only after the leaders of each service committed their institutions did we make real progress.

Thus allowing an openly gay presence in ranks will be very difficult until we have committed leadership for it. I certainly had trouble figuring out how to provide such leadership in 1993. While I believed all people are created equal, I did not believe such equality extended to all ideas or all cultures. And since I didn’t know how to advocate the assimilation of this particular form of diversity, I saw no way to prevent it from undermining unit cohesion.

I think this is key argument in favor of caution, and one of the reasons why an incremental approach -- perhaps selectively repealing aspects of DADT and gauging the impact on unit cohesion -- may be more prudent than immediately scrapping the entire policy.

Overall, I think that McPeak makes some important points that advocates of repeal have to seriously grapple with. I've said before that I think opponents of DADT should stick to making the moral argument. I still believe that, but perhaps some honest consideration of the policy implications might also help to create common ground on this issue.

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