Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Behind the headlines of the DADT survey

For the last few weeks now, the results of the intra-service survey on the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell have been bandied about in the news, with remarkably little reporting on anything other than the broad conclusions.  But just like seeing the StarTribune poll predict Dayton winning by 12 points two days before the election, the devil is in the details.

The first problem area is how the survey was conducted.  The military doesn't use polling services by phone, and only occasionally put paper surveys directly into service member's hands.  Most soldiers received survey invitations by mail, which direct you to a specific website with a 12 digit login to use.  Others were sent invites by email, with a similar login.  But not mentioned by the headlines is the fact that little more than 1/4 of survey invitations were replied to.  27.5 % is below the 30-40 percent response rate that researchers predicted, and well below the 52% rate of a similar type of survey of federal civilian workers.

The second problem is closely related, in that the survey results were collected completely by way of the internet.  While you and I may take the world wide web for granted, it is far from a sure thing for the military.  Soldiers and Marines serving in remote locations may have no internet access at all, or it may be so limited that the prospect of spending 20 minutes of your weekly computer hour on a survey means choosing between chatting with family or filling out a survey.  Sailors and Airmen often live under strict bandwidth limits for satellite internet, with military surveys again low on the priority list.  Even stateside soldiers have no guarantee of having access to the internet.  At least a fourth of the soldiers in my unit get on the internet only by way of the local library or their cell phone.

The third problem reminds me of a scene from the Matrix, in which the Agent looks at Neo and says 'that Mr Anderson, is the sound of inevitability'.  Most soldiers believe that the end of DADT is simply a matter of time, no matter what their opinion.  Combine that with the fact that the military is centered around a top down discipline-we are all used to being told what to do, and I think the actual interest of any service member to complete the survey was already very low before it was even sent out.  Why waste 20 minutes of your life answering questions about an issue that sounds like it has already been decided by the politicians?

But the fourth problem is just like the Strib poll, in that going beyond the headlines there are some very interesting results.  If you just read the headline that 70% say repealing DADT would have positive, mixed, or non-existent results, you would take that to mean 70% support or don't care about repeal.  But if you read down to question #88, you would see that only 29% would have no issue with using an open bay shower with a gay service member, while 25% would use the shower at a different time, 18% would talk to a first line leader to see if they had other options, 7% would do 'something else', and 8% don't know what they would do.  That makes for 58% of those polled who would have enough of a problem with sharing a shower to do something about it.

And although it has been mentioned by conservative pundits, the most important part of the entire survey is this-
Nearly 60% of respondents in the Marine Corps and in Army combat arms said they believed there would be a negative impact on their unit’s effectiveness in this context; among Marine combat arms the number was 67%.
These are the very men (and some women) doing the heavy lifting in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They are more likely to live and operate in austere environments, have less privacy than the rest of the services, and be more dependent on their fellow unit members for their very lives.  The entire military is centered around the combat arms units.  To disregard the impact on these units that bear a disproportionate burden of the actual combat is akin to saying that filling your car with milk instead of gasoline will only hurt 30% of the car, the engine, and thus wont really be too bad.  But the reality is that the engine IS the car-power windows, radios and leather seats are just things that make the ride more comfortable.

In the end, the truth is that DADT works.  Gay and lesbian service members can serve in the military, they just can't do so openly.  And the results of the survey sure seem to indicate that DADT works, since 69% of respondents say they have worked with a person they believed to be gay.  If accurate, that means there are far more gay and lesbian members of the military than commonly thought, and that gay service members who can do their duty without violating DADT is much higher than commonly thought.

My personal opinion on DADT is that it will likely be repealed or modified in the next decade.  There is simply too much momentum against it, and acceptance of gays and lesbians in society at large is expanding.  But I don't think the simple repeal of DADT will be the end of the story.  The Army is fanatical about enforcing equal opportunity, and the end of DADT will be just the beginning of the struggle to integrate sexual orientation into the military at large.  Think about it for a moment-how can the Army lift DADT and officially condone gays and lesbians without also accepting gay marriage?  This isn't just a social question; married soldiers make more money in housing allowance than do single soldiers.  If gay marriage is legal in a particular state, how can the military possibly tell a Sailor that his marriage doesn't count for the Family Separation Allowance, which compensates service members who must be away from their families?

If the military ends DADT, it will be forced to confront full integration of the gay and lesbian lifestyle into military traditions.  If you thought racial integration of the services was tough, or that allowing women in combat roles was a thorny issue, just you wait.  

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