What the Don't Ask Don't Tell report really says

Press coverage of the new Pentagon Don't Ask Don't Tell report suggests that large majorities of U.S. servicemen and women wouldn't mind the repeal of the military's current policy on gays.  Don't believe it.  What the report actually shows is that the military is deeply divided over the policy, both between the service branches and especially between those who have served in combat and those who haven't.  Did you know that 59 percent of Marines who have served in combat say repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell would have a negative effect?  And that 45 percent of Army respondents who have been in combat say the same thing?  That is significant, not marginal, opposition.

Overall, the survey of 115,000 servicemen and women presents a mixed-to-positive reaction to the proposed repeal of the current policy. Seventeen percent of all service members say repeal would have a positive effect, while 21 percent say it would have a negative effect, 33 percent say it would have equally positive and negative effects, and 29 percent say it would have no effect.

But the picture is considerably different when you compare the opinions of service members who have and haven't been in combat.  For example, the Pentagon study group asked the following question of respondents “who have never been deployed or haven't been in combat environment since September 11, 2001”:

If Don't Ask, Don't tell is repealed and you are working with a service member in your immediate unit who has said he or she is gay or lesbian, how, if at all, would it affect your immediate unit's effectiveness at completing its mission on a day-to-day basis?

The answers are a mixed bag but suggest that there would be support for repeal of the current policy. Seventeen percent of all service members say repeal would have a positive effect, while 21 percent say it would have a negative effect; 33 percent say it would have equally positive and negative effects, and 29 percent say it would have no effect.

Then the Pentagon team asked service members “who have been deployed at some point and been in combat environment since September 11, 2001”:

If Don't Ask, Don't tell is repealed and you are working with a service member in your immediate unit who has said he or she is gay or lesbian, how, if at all, would it affect your immediate unit's effectiveness at completing its mission in a field environment or out to sea?

The differences are striking.  Just 11 percent say repeal would have a positive effect, while 44 percent say it would have a negative effect.  Twenty six percent of those surveyed say it would have equally positive and negative effects, and 19 percent say it would have no effect.

Break down the numbers by service branch, and the results are even more striking.  Fifty-nine percent of Marines who have been in combat say repeal would have a negative effect, and just 11 percent say it would have no effect.  Forty-five percent of Army respondents say it would have a negative effect.  The opposition is less intense in the Navy and Air Force, where 35 percent and 41 percent say repeal would have a negative effect, but those are still significant minorities.

And these are large groups.  According to the study, 70 percent of respondents are now or have been deployed, and 83 percent of them have been in a combat zone or an area where they received hostile fire pay.  There is simply no way to argue that they overwhelmingly support repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell.

But repeal is what the president and many lawmakers want.  And civilian control of the military is a bedrock principle of the U.S. government.  If the president and Congress order service members to do something, then that's what they are going to do.  But don't pretend they all think it's a good idea.

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