Uncle Sam Wants You:

From yesterday’s Boston Globe, a story with interesting implications for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”:

The US military allowed at least 36 gay soldiers last year to stay in uniform, despite efforts by their commanders or fellow soldiers to have them discharged under the ''don't ask, don't tell" policy, according to a review of hundreds of cases in which soldiers sought to remain in uniform without denying their homosexuality. The number of soldiers allowed to stay despite being identified as gay -- 36 of 120 contested cases -- was substantially higher than in 2004, when 22 of 125 soldiers prevailed, and three times as many as in 2003, when only 12 of 107 were able to persuade their commanders or a military review board to keep them in uniform, the data show.

Thirty-six soldiers may not seem like a lot, but it’s now almost a third of the contested discharges for homosexuality -- and it’s rising. (Most don’t contest their discharges.) Moreover, these numbers mirror a larger recent trend in discharges for homosexuality. Consider the military discharges for homosexuality for each year since 1982:

1982 – 1,998

1983 – 1,815

1984 – 1,822

1985 – 1,660

1986 – 1,644

1987 – 1,380

1988 – 1,100

1989 – 997

1990 – 941

1991 – 949

1992 – 708

1993 – 682

1994 – 597

1995 – 722

1996 – 850

1997 – 997

1998 – 1,145

1999 – 1,034

2000 – 1,212

2001 – 1,273

2002 – 906

2003 – 787

Notice two key pivot points in these numbers. From 1982 until 1994, discharges from the military for homosexuality declined almost every year (going from 1,998 in 1982 down to 597 in 1994). Starting in 1994, however, such discharges began to rise and did so almost every year until 2001 (from 597 in 1994 to 1,273 in 2001). Then, in 2001, discharges began to decline again (from 1,273 in 2001 to 787 in 2003).

The pivot dates – 1994 and 2001 – are themselves remarkable. The year 1994 was the first full year of the “compromise” DADT policy, which was said to allow homosexuals to serve as long as they kept their sexual orientation secret (though that’s not what the federal law actually says). Yet discharges rose every year under DADT until 2001. Part of the rise immediately after DADT could be explained by the fact that some gay service members “came out” in 1993, believing that President Clinton would carry through on his election-year promise to end the ban by executive order. But that does not explain the continuing rise after the first couple of years. It’s hard to make the case that DADT was a softening of military policy on homosexuals. Things got worse for gay soldiers, not better.

Things got worse until 2001, that is. That year saw the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, leading to the war in Afghanistan and the larger war on terror. Discharges for homosexuality during this time of great military need (including now, Iraq) have declined.

The question is, why the decline? The Globe story offers a couple of theories that might explain it:

The Pentagon declined to explain why more gay soldiers were being retained, but the lawyers who represent soldiers challenging cases under the policy say the Pentagon seems to have softened its stance on homosexuality. The lawyers attributed the change both to a growing acceptance of gays within the ranks and to the military's need to keep more highly trained soldiers in the Iraq War. ''As the country has changed, so have the people in the military," said Sharra Greer, director of law and policy at the nonprofit Service Members' Legal Defense Network, which represents gay soldiers challenging their dismissals. ''More commanders are not enforcing [don't ask, don't tell] strictly."


''The equations for commands have shifted," Greer said. ''They are under enormous pressure to retain people. They do a cost-benefit analysis and we are hearing the same thing: 'I really don't care if you are gay and I am not going to kick you out.' "' Recent studies have shown that many soldiers dismissed in past years under ''don't ask, don't tell" tended to be in highly trained specialties now in demand, including linguists and medical technicians. ... Meanwhile, there is a growing body of evidence that attitudes have changed within the ranks. A recent study by the Naval Postgraduate School found that a majority of military personnel felt comfortable around openly gay colleagues.

The two explanations – softening attitudes toward homosexuals in the military ranks and wartime needs – probably feed each other. The need to defeat a common enemy causes people to subordinate other interests and concerns that might predominate in peacetime. War is not a time for obsessing about abstractions or ideological purity; it’s intensely practical. Indeed, the recent declines in discharges for homosexuality follow a historical pattern: such discharges typically decline during active military conflict. It happened during both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Yet when those wars ended, discharges for homosexuality began to rise once again.

What does this leniency toward homosexuality during wartime say about DADT? It may simply say that in wartime the need for bodies overrides almost all other interests. But it's interesting to examine these numbers in light of the particular way in which DADT has been justified. While a number of justifications for the policy have been offered, by far the most prominent one is recited in the federal law setting up DADT: “The presence in the armed forces of [homosexuals] would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.”

In theory, the unit-morale and cohesion justifications are perfectly reasonable and could be accepted as the necessary, though distasteful, price we must pay to have an effective military. And it is during times of active military conflict – like the present – that the needs of unit morale and cohesiveness are surely the greatest. If homosexuals were truly a threat to martial values, you’d expect intense pressure to remove them during war since their presence in the services would be at best a distraction and at worst a hindrance -- which could be deadly.

But it is in times such as these that the opposite occurs: more homosexuals are retained. War concentrates the mind on what really matters, and what really matters is not the sexual orientation of the Arab linguist, or the fighter pilot, or the nurse, or the person helping you defuse the IED on the road to the Baghdad airport. What matters is his training, his dedication, and his willingness to put himself at risk for the good of the group. If he does not have these qualities, it should not matter that he’s straight. If he does have these qualities, it should not matter that he’s gay. The numbers suggest that military professionals are quietly coming to the same conclusion.