By Nora Bensahel
Best Defense guest columnist
Some 70 percent of serving military personnel said that allowing gays to serve openly would damage combat effectiveness. A full 74 percent said that it would be difficult to maintain discipline. And 66 percent said it would damage recruiting.
Every single one of them was wrong.
Even though President Obama has now certified that the military is ready to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, many people remain worried that this policy change will harm the military. Yet the experience of the British military -- our closest ally and fighting partner -- should put those fears to rest.
The numbers above come from a 1996 survey of British military personnel conducted by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) about whether gays should be allowed to serve openly. The vast majority opposed the change and predicted dire consequences. In 2000, a European court decision forced the MOD to allow gays to serve openly. Soon after the policy change, something remarkable happened.
Combat effectiveness remained high -- as proven in Afghanistan, where British soldiers have been fighting and dying alongside their American counterparts. Discipline, recruiting, and retention did not change at all. Many British personnel who served at the time recall that "the world did not end" -- military life continued as usual. Six months after the policy change, an MOD review found that there was "widespread acceptance of the new policy" and a "marked lack of reaction." Another review two years later not only confirmed the earlier findings, but concluded that "[n]o further formal review of the Armed Forces policy on homosexuality is currently judged to be necessary." Ten years later, many of those who served at the time have acknowledged that they were wrong.
The United States and the United Kingdom are different, of course. All military personnel reflect the societies that they serve, so the domestic context matters greatly. Yet two important aspects of the U.S. domestic context suggest that implementing a policy that allows gays to serve openly will proceed just as easily as it did in the United Kingdom.
First, the U.S. is changing its policy through the legislative branch of government, not the judicial branch. Congress voted last year to change the law through the normal democratic process, the same way that it changes laws on education, the environment, health care, and so on. Individuals may strongly disagree with those changes, but few question the legitimacy of the process itself. That makes it much more likely that U.S. military personnel and the American people broadly will support the policy change than if it were forced through a court decision, as happened in Britain.
Second, U.S. military personnel are far more ready to accept this policy change than British military personnel were. Last year, the Department of Defense surveyed the force and found that 69 percent believe that they have already served with someone who is gay. Large majorities believed that unit readiness and recruiting would either remain unchanged or would improve, and only 13 percent believed they would leave military service sooner than they planned.
Views among ground combat personnel were consistently less positive, but even there, 52 percent of Army soldiers and 42 percent of Marines believed that the ability of their unit members to work together would improve or remain unchanged. However, people generally do a very poor job of predicting their own future behavior. Much larger majorities of British military personnel predicted that allowing gays to serve openly would have terrible consequences, yet none of them occurred. Additionally, all U.S. military personnel have received specific training on this policy change during the past six months, which may have addressed some of their concerns.
Last summer, I spoke with a young British soldier who openly identifies himself as gay and had just returned from several months in Afghanistan. He joined the British equivalent of the Junior ROTC before he was a teenager, enlisted at 18, and had just been selected to serve as a commissioned officer. He knew that there was a lot of opposition to letting gays serve in the military 11 years ago, but wonders what all the fuss was about.
Someday soon, American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines will wonder the same thing.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.