Let’s start with one basic, almost indisputable fact: the likely effect of repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) will be to make our military weaker. Judging by the recent survey of servicemen, the Marine Corps will suffer the greatest impact: of those marines who say they’ve actually served with a homosexual leader, co-worker, or subordinate, they reported that in 28 percent of instances it worsened their unit’s ability to work together, in 26 percent it reduced unit morale, and in 25 percent it harmed the unit’s performance. Virtually no Marines reported that having an effectively open homosexual in their immediate unit had a positive effect.
Furthermore, if DADT is repealed, 38.1 percent of marines said they would think about leaving earlier or definitely leave earlier than planned, while only 2.2 percent said they would think about or definitely serve longer than planned. This is on top of an already high surveyed attrition rate; 34.2 percent reported that they would probably or definitely leave following the completion of their present obligation. On the net, if we assume that half of the “probably”s and “think about it”s follow through and leave at the end of their current assignment, the repeal of DADT will raise the percentage of marines leaving as soon as legally able to 55.5 percent.
Even if we supposed that green recruits could effectively replace the half of our veteran corps that plans on leaving over the next few years, from where would we obtain them? Roughly 30 percent of our marines report that they would likely have never joined had DADT not been in place. And most homosexuals (who, if election exit polls are to be believed, represent less than three percent of the population), don’t find the right to openly serve to be very important factor in whether they join the military — less than one in six of those currently serving in the Marines say they will come out of the closet after DADT is repealed.
Perhaps the surveys are wrong, and the integration of open homosexuals into our military will proceed as smoothly as it has in other countries. It’s dangerous, however, to make this assumption — the U.S. context, with its high fraction of evangelical Christians and cultural conservatives, is different from that of, say, Britain or Canada. If we chose all our policies based upon success abroad and without regard to context, we’d have Saudi Arabia’s energy policy, Uzbekistan’s port security, and Monaco’s welfare program.
“So what?” you might ask. Isn’t this a matter of equality? If a third of our Marines are so uncomfortable serving with an openly gay member that they would leave the corps, isn’t that their issue, not ours?
There are three problems with this. The first is that there is no “right” to serve guaranteed by the constitution. The military excludes many classes of people as a matter of course: single parents with custody, the very young, the old, the insufficiently educated, the physically unfit, and so on. And even those who are allowed in have a range of restrictions placed upon them when it comes to speech and rights. There is no obligation by the U.S. government to make military service available to anyone.
Secondly, the trade-off seems hardly to our advantage. Homosexuals already have the opportunity to serve in our military — the opportunity to serve openly is a marginal improvement, and if it comes at the price of repeatedly decimating our armed forces, then it comes far too dearly.
Lastly, and most importantly, making trade-offs of this nature sets a dangerous precedent. The number one executioner of republics are their own standing armies. There are few more suicidal routes a democracy can take than merging their military affairs with their civil. This is why, when it comes to military policy, there can only be two goals: bigger dog or better cage. Whether it is the debate over the military-industrial complex, or private military contractors, or what to do with a general like Stanley A. McChrystal, there are two options: either we enhance the ability of our armed forces, or build higher the walls we have erected to keep them separated from our domestic politics.
Using the military to advance a domestic agenda is unacceptable. I am sure President Obama has little intention to use the military as a political tool for more nefarious ends than helping win the next election, but he must recognize that the military does not exist for his own political expediency. Generations of statesmen have fought hard to constrain the military, to keep it bounded within a specific political mandate. To act as if those walls were not there, to make the military a component in some sort of social policy at the expense of its effectiveness is the height of recklessness.
DADT is a fair compromise between tapping the military potential of a small minority and avoiding the disruption that that minority’s inclusion creates.