Several gay activists are furious about the Pentagon’s decision to ask the troops to weigh in on the issue of ending “Don’t Ask,” sending out 400,000 surveys asking everything from “Do you currently serve with a male or female service member you believe to be homosexual?” and “Have you been assigned to share bath facilities with an open bay shower that is also used by a service member you believed to be homosexual?”
This morning in a roundtable with journalists, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich) added his own concerns about the survey, saying, “I can understand the resentment in the gay community.” Levin pointed out, as many gay activists have, that the survey is unprecedented.
Harry Truman didn’t poll the military when he decided to integrate the Armed Forces in 1948. Nor was there a survey when the Pentagon put women on battle ships in 1978. The Navy recently made a decision to allow women in the close quarters of submarines — again without surveying the male submariners.
“It would be really, really, really unacceptable for people in the military to believe it’s a democracy,” Levin said, adding, “I have my doubts about the content of the survey.”
The senator, who mostly briefed journalists about his recent trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, made clear that he hasn’t read the survey yet. He also said that surveys of military personnel could be useful if they are only used to implement a policy already determined by civilian and military leaders.
But according to Time’s Mark Thompson, others have their doubts:
When Harry Truman wanted to integrate blacks into the U.S. military in 1948, he simply ordered it done. When the Navy wanted women on ships beginning in 1978, it commanded its admirals to do so. When the Clinton Pentagon decided women should become fighter pilots, it issued orders telling the military to make it happen. For generations, the military mind-set has been, If we want you to have an opinion, we’ll issue you one. So why is the Pentagon asking troops how they’ll feel if forced to serve alongside openly gay comrades?
“This is a very dangerous precedent,” says Lawrence Korb, who ran the Pentagon’s personnel office during the Reagan Administration. “It gives the troops the feeling that they have a veto over what the top people want.” Not everyone agrees. “What matters is the morale of the force in the field,” says Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer and military scholar. “The survey is an honest attempt to suss out what the effects on morale might be.” (See a brief history of gays in the military.)
But even a top officer acknowledges some unease. “We’ve never done this,” Admiral Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, said in February after Pentagon leaders endorsed ending “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and said they would survey the troops about it. “We’ve never assessed the force because it is not our practice to go within our military and poll our force to determine if they like the laws of the land or not,” he told an activist from the University of California’s Palm Center, which monitors the issue. “I mean, that gets you into [a] very difficult regime.”
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, says the poll is simply a political tool designed to ease a decision that would be better made quickly. Instead, it’s part of a prolonged process that polarizes those involved and hurts both national security and gays. “If we were asking questions about any other identity group — Would your wife mind living on post next to a Chinese family?, Would you take orders from a Baptist officer?, Would you mind serving alongside an African American? — these kinds of questions make those groups second-class citizens,” he says.
Still, gay service members should ignore the advice of activists who have advised them to refuse to fill out the survey in protest. That’s not a good tactic. There voices need to be heard.