THE BLOG
05/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New York Times Op-ed on Gay Troops Distorts Evidence

Former Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill McPeak published an op-ed in the New York Times today in which he claimed that during the 1993 debate over gays in the military, "A lot more heat than light was produced." McPeak says that as Washington reconsiders the question this year, "I doubt that we'll have a more enlightened public discussion in 2010."

But the way to have an enlightened public conversation is to offer reasoned claims based on evidence and research, and to characterize and evaluate opposing arguments honestly. McPeak does no such thing.

He begins his case by noting that he has heard no one make the claim that U.S. service members will fight more effectively when the gay ban is repealed. In fact, research shows that the ban itself undermines cohesion and readiness. A study group of Flag and General Officers which took a year to assess all of the evidence on "don't ask, don't tell" found that commanders in Iraq are ignoring the policy and choosing to keep their teams together rather than firing loyal gay troops. A recent Military Times poll confirms that many commanders know of gays and lesbians serving in their units, but choose not to discharge them.

The Flag and General Officers heard testimony from gay and straight service members who told them that in most cases, troops who acknowledge that they are gay do not encounter difficulties with their peers. When gay service members hide their identities, however, everyone in the unit knows that they are keeping a secret. That dynamic can be the source of bullying, tension and a decrease in cohesion.

Indeed, there are at least twenty studies, many written by the military's own researchers, which find that at very least, gay and lesbian troops do not harm cohesion and readiness. So when McPeak claims that "advocates for gays in the service have by and large avoided a discussion of unit cohesion," it is not quite clear that his views are informed by evidence.

McPeak offers an extended financial analysis explaining why the cost of firing gays and lesbians is trivial. It is true that the military spends only a fraction of its budget firing gay and lesbian troops. A panel including military professors and a former Secretary of Defense found that conservatively, the cost to implement "don't ask, don't tell" from 1994 through 2004 was about $360 million. That estimate did not include a number of big-ticket items, and only covered a decade. When one considers that the military has been drumming out gays and lesbians since the 1940's, it is clear that the taxpayers have spent at least several billion dollars implementing exclusionary policy. But the question is whether these funds accrued any benefits, or whether they were simply wasted.

McPeak says that, "To undermine cohesion is to endanger everyone." But McPeak himself has admitted that when there is a tradeoff between pursuing moral values and military effectiveness, he prefers the former. In 1991 and 1992, McPeak opposed women in combat, saying in talks with lawmakers that he had "personal prejudices" against expanding combat roles for women, "even though logic tells us" that women can conduct combat operations just as well as men. He told Congress then that he would choose an inferior male flight instructor over a superior female one even if it made for a "militarily less effective situation." "I admit it doesn't make much sense," he said, "but that's the way I feel about it." Elsewhere he repeated that his position did not meet "strict evidence standards for logic," but that that did not raise doubts in him about his position.

McPeak's honesty about the relative importance of prejudice and military effectiveness maps perfectly onto what happened in 1992 and 1993 regarding gays in the military. While McPeak and other leaders who formulated the military's anti-gay policy insist that their only motive was to protect unit cohesion, we now know, thanks to the research of Palm Center Senior Research Fellow Dr. Nathaniel Frank, that McPeak and the other participants in the debate were motivated by moral prejudice, not unit cohesion. Frank makes his case in the new book Unfriendly Fire, which is based on ten years of research and hundreds of interviews, and which Military Times just named as one of the top books of the decade on military matters.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of McPeak's argument is his distortion of the civil rights implications of "don't ask, don't tell." McPeak is surely correct that discrimination against African Americans is not the same as discrimination against gays and lesbians. One study found that the debates over racial civil rights in the 1940's and 1950's had no fewer than twelve parallels to the conversation over gays in the military in the 1990's. For example, opponents argued in the 1940's that white service members would not follow African American officers, and in the 1990's that straight troops would not follow gay commanders. Despite the rhetorical overlap, however, racism and homophobia are distinct phenomena, and McPeak is correct that they should not be conflated.

What's distorted about his analysis of civil rights, however, is his suggestion that "don't ask, don't tell" punishes gay troops for their conduct, not just for who they are. "Indeed, we seem to have here an odd exception to the American idea that people should be judged by their actions rather than their makeup." McPeak's analysis is upside down because "don't ask, don't tell" punishes identity, not just conduct. As Harvard Professor Janet Halley shows in her brilliant book, Don't, the policy pretends to be a regulation of what gay people do (conduct). In fact, she demonstrates that gays and lesbians get drummed out of the military for who they are, even if they do not engage in any particular conduct.

And that, right there, is what's at stake in the conversation about "don't ask, don't tell." The issue isn't just that the policy punishes people for who they are, which in and of itself is a fundamental detriment to what it means to be an American citizen. The issue is that people like Merrill McPeak don't tell the truth about this. Under the guise of protecting unit cohesion, anti-gay proponents (and let's be frank, that's what they are) would have us believe that they're simply looking out for the nation's defense. What they're really doing is using government policy to express moral animus.

Yes, it is important to protect unit cohesion and military effectiveness. Yes, repealing the gay ban will promote those very ends. But the reason to be frightened by Merrill McPeak and his ilk has nothing to do with unit cohesion, and everything to do with their so-far successful efforts to encode prejudice into law and snooker the public into believing that there's a national security rationale for doing so. That is a dangerous precedent.