3 Years After Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Dire Warnings Ring Hollow

By Kayla Williams

In the lead-up to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the law that barred gay and lesbian troops from serving openly in the military, there were dire warnings: Homosexuality would be incompatible with military service. Vast numbers of straight people would refuse to serve, necessitating a return to the draft. Forced cohabitation with homosexuals in the military would be unfair, demoralizing, and harmful to the culture of the volunteer force, on which our national security depends.

A year after the repeal, there has been no negative impact on force readiness, recruitment, or retention, according to the Palm Center. Two years later, supporters said, these dire predictions had still not come to pass. After yet another year, rather than struggling to handle a mass exodus of troops (two were confirmed to have left over repeal), the military is instead seeking ways to shrink the force.

Since the Pentagon rescinded the policy barring women from serving in direct ground combat jobs and units in January 2013, the same pundits have voiced similar dire predictions: “Pentagon brass are kowtowing to their political masters and radical feminists to remove exemptions for women in ground combat in defiance of overwhelming scientific evidence and combat experience. This craven behavior is terribly dangerous for our armed forces, our national security, and especially the young women who will be placed in harm’s way.” The initiative is “inimical to the readiness and good-order-and-discipline of the U.S. military.” It “threatens to become a corrosive, demoralizing force in all branches of the service.”

These views are frequently cited in media coverage of the issue. Should they be taken seriously? In his fascinating book The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don't, Nate Silver cites research that “the more interviews that an expert had done with the press … the worse his predictions tended to be.” It is not a record of accuracy but a willingness to make big, bold predictions that is “more likely to get you on television.” Measured, careful assessments that integrating women into previously closed jobs may cause some challenges, but will likely be successful in the long term, simply aren’t that exciting.  The same goes for assessments that while this change could lead to a temporary spike in sexual harassment or assault they will likely be lower in the long term – especially compared to conclusive, vigorously worded threats that the military will collapse and our national security will suffer.

It is worth remembering that the U.S. Army is approaching its 239th birthday. It has endured through multiple major changes, many of which led to panicked predictions of catastrophe, including allowing women to serve at all, letting blacks and whites to serve in the same units, gradually expanding the roles open to women, and authorizing gays to serve openly. Despite – or perhaps even because of – these changes, the military is the most respected institution in America. Despite being at war for well over a decade, the all-volunteer force has not collapsed, and the services have been able to recruit sufficient numbers of personnel throughout the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (though the Army had to relax some standards during the height of the Surge, they remained higher than requirements during prior eras). Predictions that allowing the best-qualified people to serve in whatever jobs they are capable of doing will lead to chaos or catastrophe should be looked at very skeptically.

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Kayla Williams is the author of Plenty of Time when We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War. She is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project and was formerly a sergeant in a military intelligence company of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).