12/03/2010 01:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Homophobia in Military: Not What You Would Think

The Pentagon has released its report on integrating gays in the military. This paints a very optimistic picture about the prospects for getting rid of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy.

The key statistic is that 70 percent of the armed forces do not believe that openly-serving gays would be harmful to morale.

If so, then why have the top brass been so slow to accept change? It is certainly possible that high-ranking officers tend to resist change. They are said to be perpetually fighting the last war instead of the next one.

Yet, there is an even simpler explanation for the mismatch between what integrating gays in the military actually means and what senior officers were afraid that it would mean. Perhaps the difference is largely generational. Senior officers are mostly middle-aged or elderly. But most soldiers are young and the younger generation are much more accepting of homosexuality.

Another finding that really stood out was that soldiers who served with someone they believed was gay were much more in favor of openly-gay service. Many felt that opening up the military to homosexuals would have positive consequences for the armed forces.

Indeed, 92 percent of respondents who reported serving with someone they believed was gay felt that unit effectiveness was unaffected or improved by having a gay person in the unit. This puts a nail in the coffin of the old stereotype that gays would undermine morale.

Yet there are a few holdouts. The Marine Corps and other combat units are about evenly split on the question. This allows politicians like John McCain to say that we should not get rid of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy because this would interfere with the activities of fighting units currently engaged in two wars. The rejoinder to this from the military brass themselves is that wartime is a perfect opportunity to initiate change.

Just as we scratch our heads over the differences between the top leadership and the military as a whole, it is curious that frontline regiments would be so much more opposed to openly-serving gays than the rest of the military. One plausible explanation is that there may be fewer gays in combat so that opposition to them reflects very limited direct experience of gays in the military. When asked this question, Secretary Gates speculated that because combat troops are mostly very young they have less experience in negotiating such issues.

Whenever Congress chooses to get rid of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy that has been found unconstitutional in the courts, it appears that the military can get rid of it rather easily. What is more, they now believe it is the right thing to do and are impatient for Congress to give them the go-ahead.

Anyone who knows their history will be aware that the military is actually quite adept at bringing about social changes. Indeed, the racial desegregation of the military was ahead of the rest of the country and provided an inspirational example of what could be achieved in correcting institutional injustice.

As to the old canard about gays undermining military discipline, I pointed out before that some of the most disciplined fighters, including the Spartans of Ancient Greece were enthusiastic practitioners of homoerotic acts.

The real issue, though, is that like everyone else, including Senator McCain, the military have moved on from the homophobia of the past. A military that accepts differences, whether of race, or gender, or sexual orientation, is bound to be stronger. That is the take home message from the survey conducted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.