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Why Again Are We Asking About ‘Don’t Ask’?

• August 10, 2010 • 3:45 PM

The Pentagon was counseled to act quickly and decisively on allowing gays in the military. So why is it being slow and dilatory?

The Pentagon has invested considerable money and muscle surveying the troops this summer on their feelings about a potential — err, eventual — repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Last month, 400,000 representative service members were emailed a 103-question colossus.

They were asked — according to a copy of what the Pentagon hoped would be a confidential questionnaire — about everything from unit morale to open-bay showers.

Troops have until the end of this week to weigh in, although it’s unclear exactly what anyone will learn from the data. From the beginning, the entire exercise has been riddled with contradictions.

The Pentagon wants to know what the troops think, but the troops don’t really have a say in this decision. Gay and lesbian service members have been understandably skittish, given that outing themselves in the service of research could technically still cost them their jobs.

And then there is the really big hitch: There simply is no good way to survey service members about their gay colleagues without singling out those troops for precisely the type of treatment the Pentagon says it wants to avoid.

“On one hand, you can look at this as the beginning of a dialogue that could have some useful role,” said Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “On the other hand, there are some issues that you simply don’t poll the troops about.”

Consider, for example, this question: “If Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed and you are working with a service member in your immediate unit who has said he or she is gay or lesbian, how, if at all, would your level of morale be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?” (Options are: very positively, positively, equally as positively as negatively, and negatively.)

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THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class] “These are not questions that in the 21st century should be asked about any minority group,” Belkin said. “Imagine a survey that asked, ‘Would it have a big impact on you to share a tent with a Chinese soldier?’ The reason we don’t ask those kinds of questions is because asking a question like that constitutes the group you’re asking about as a second-class citizen. And part of what the Pentagon is trying to do now is to send a signal that everyone is going to be treated equally.”

A central element of the military ethos, Belkin adds, is that you don’t get to pick your tent-mate; you bunk with whom you’re ordered to.

The military, after all, is not a democracy. “It’s not our practice to go within our military and poll our force to determine if they like the laws of the land or not,” Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of Naval Operations, has warned. “That gets you into a very difficult regime.”

(Even in a democracy, policymakers didn’t poll Southern businessmen about whether they’d mind sharing a lunch counter with blacks.)

The Pentagon says it needs this research to determine whether repeal would harm military readiness. Social scientists, however, point to existing research that already answers the question, including studies of other countries and past reports commissioned by the Pentagon.

“There are ways you can use social science to test whether repeal harms the military,” Belkin said. “But asking troops about their behavior is not one of them.”

He points to the common phenomenon — long identified by psychologists and illustrated in other countries that have integrated gay soldiers — that predictions about our behavior often don’t match our actual actions.

The military’s last definitive study on the topic, a 1993 RAND report, concluded that any policy change integrating gays should be implemented quickly. “Any sense of experimentation or uncertainty,” RAND concluded, “invites those opposed to change to continue to resist it.”

The Pentagon, in other words, is ignoring its own commissioned advice.

When this latest data comes back — the study group’s final report is due Dec. 1 — the picture may only get messier. The whole study is set against the backdrop of an equally contradictory political reality: Civilian leaders will be the ones to repeal DADT, but they must treat the military as if it has some ownership of the process.

As those civilian leaders look for political cover, who’s to say what the palatable survey results will be? Fewer than 15 percent of troops feel repeal would hurt morale? Seventy-five percent are on board if the military eliminates open-bay showers?

“I’m not interested in the outcome of this study,” Belkin said. “I’m interested in the president’s reaction to the study. It’s a leadership moment. It’s not a moment for more data.”

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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