Will Allowing Gays in the Military Really Impair Unit Cohesion? The Relevance of Allies’ Experience

In my view, the strongest argument against President Obama’s proposal to allow gays to serve openly in the military is the claim that it will somehow impair unit cohesion. Yet as columnist Steve Chapman points out, several of our allies allow gays to serve openly with no such ill effects:

It’s not completely implausible that in a military environment, open homosexuality might wreak havoc on order and morale. But the striking thing about these claims is that they exist in a fact-free zone. From all the dire predictions, you would think a lifting of the ban would be an unprecedented leap into the dark, orchestrated by people who know nothing of the demands of military life.

As it happens, we now have a wealth of experience on which to evaluate the policy….

A couple of dozen countries already allow gays in uniform—including allies that have fought alongside our troops, such as Britain, Canada, and Australia. Just as there is plenty of opposition in the U.S. ranks, there was plenty of opposition when they changed their policies.

In Canada, 45 percent of service members said they would not work with gay colleagues, and a majority of British soldiers and sailors rejected the idea. There were warnings that hordes of military personnel would quit and promising youngsters would refuse to enlist.

But when the new day arrived, it turned out to be a big, fat non-event. The Canadian government reported “no effect.” The British government observed “a marked lack of reaction.” An Australian veterans group that opposed admitting gays later admitted that the services “have not had a lot of difficulty in this area.”

Israel, being small, surrounded by hostile powers, and obsessed with security, can’t afford to jeopardize its military strength for the sake of prissy ventures in political correctness. But its military not only accepts gays, it provides benefits to their same-sex partners, as it does with spouses. Has that policy sapped Israel’s military might?

The Australian, British, Canadian, and Israeli armed forces are all among the best in the world. If they allow gays to serve openly with no ill effects, that strongly suggests that the US can as well.

I have not followed the literature on this subject in detail. So it’s possible that there is a body of data somewhere showing that these nations’ military capability really has been impaired in some way by allowing gays to serve. I highly doubt it, but I lack the knowledge and expertise to be sure.

One could also argue that the US armed forces are so different from those of these other countries that their experience is irrelevant. Given the quality of these armies and the fact that all of them rely heavily on US-style weapons, organization, and military doctrine, I’m skeptical of that claim too.

It may be that US troops are much more homophobic than those of these other countries, and therefore won’t effectively serve with gays. That too seems a dubious argument. An April 2009 poll showed that 50% of survey respondents in military households support letting gays serve openly, with 43% opposed; 56% reject the view that allowing gays to serve openly would be “divisive.” That suggests that homophobia in the military is far from universal. As Chapman points out, there was no outcry by servicemembers or decline in unit cohesion when the ban on openly gay troops was temporarily lifted during the 1991 Gulf War. Attitudes towards gays are considerably more favorable today, which makes problems even less likely.

To my mind, opponents of allowing gays to serve openly in the military need to show that the ill effects they predict have actually occurred in these other countries. If they can’t, they should support the idea of allowing the armed forces to choose the best available recruits regardless of sexual orientation.