As opponents of gays serving openly in the military parse through the Defense Department's survey results of more than 115,000 servicemen and women and their families to find some shred of justification for officially sanctioned bigotry, it is worth taking note of this: The percentage of service members who believe repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy would do no harm to their units is actually higher than the percentage of the general public who favor repealing the ban. That is to say, on this issue, Congress is behind the public in accepting the full integration of the military, and the public, amazingly, is behind the military itself.
The latest poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press pegged public support for repealing don't ask, don't tell at 58 percent, and some recent surveys have found even higher levels of support than that. Meanwhile, the military reports that some 70 percent of service members said ending the ban on open service by gays would have a positive, neutral or mixed effect on unit cohesion. And among service members who believe they already have served alongside someone who is gay, a whopping 92 percent said their unit's ability to work together was very good, good or neutral.
So what excuse will supporters of keeping the ban offer now?
Watch for people like Sen. John McCain, who has been running away from his previous stance that he would support a repeal if the military did, to focus on the subsets of the military who were less comfortable with a repeal — most notably, the Marines. About 40 percent of the Marines said they thought a repeal would affect unit cohesion negatively or very negatively, a significantly higher percentage than the Army, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard. But it is no coincidence that the Marines are the one branch of the service whose leaders have been most resistant to ending don't ask, don't tell. The military is a top-down organization, not bottom-up. The Marines are reflecting the views of their leaders, not the other way around.
Army combat units were also more likely to believe that ending the ban would have a negative effect, and at a time when the nation is engaged in two wars, that could carry some weight. But a closer look at the details of the survey debunks the notion that a repeal will actually hurt battle effectiveness.
A majority of troops who are deployed in a combat zone and believe they are currently serving with someone who is gay believe it has a positive or neutral impact on their units' effectiveness. Interestingly, their assessment gets even better when questioned about how serving with someone who is openly gay would impact effectiveness during a negative event or intense combat. In those most crucial situations, among people who actually know what it's like to serve in combat with someone who is gay, the percentage who say a repeal would have a neutral or positive effect jumps to nearly 75 percent.
But the facts have never had much to do with the political debate over don't ask, don't tell. No matter how positive the survey results, opponents of overturning the ban would find some reason to perpetuate a system that denies capable, patriotic Americans the opportunity to serve for no reason other than prejudice. Neither this survey, nor anything else, is likely to ever change their minds.
But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates makes one argument that even they should listen to. He has asked for a transition period for the military to phase out the policy. That is reasonable, provided Congress specifies a deadline and doesn't allow the matter to drag on indefinitely. But, Mr. Gates notes, if Congress doesn't act, the courts will, and they will order an immediate end to the policy. One judge in California already has, though the matter is on hold pending an appeal. If the remaining congressional supporters of don't ask, don't tell are being honest when they say their primary concern is avoiding harm to the military, they should take Mr. Gates' advice and vote for a repeal.