Why Is the Military Polling the Troops About Gays?

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

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."

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.

But the polling and a Pentagon study now under way — after President Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and the House all have declared the ban should end (the Senate is expected to do so soon) — does serve a purpose. "We've had to do these political somersaults," Belkin says, "involving a basically fake study process, in order to give the Pentagon a sense that they have some buy-in." Gates said Thursday that it's "very important for us to understand from our men and women in uniform the challenges that they see" accompanying such a change, and added that the survey is "being done in a very professional way."

But the confidential survey, sent out via e-mail last week to 400,000 active and reserve troops, is already controversial. Gay-advocacy groups obtained copies of the poll Friday and it quickly flew around the Internet. The survey "stokes the fires of homophobia by its very design, and will only make the Pentagon's responsibility to subdue homophobia as part of this inevitable policy change even harder," said Alexander Nicholson of Servicemembers United, a former Army interrogator who was discharged under the existing "Don't ask, don't tell" legislation. He complained that the survey uses "bias-inducing" words "such as the clinical term homosexual," and focused too much on the negative implications of repeal. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell called such criticism "nonsense."

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, perhaps the leading gay-rights group dealing with "Don't ask, don't tell," took a tough line against the survey. "No survey of the troops should be done," director Aubrey Sarvis said Friday. "Surveying the troops is unprecedented — it did not happen in 1948 when President Truman ended segregation and it did not happen in 1976 when the service academies opened to women. Even when the military placed women on ships at sea, the Pentagon did not turn to a survey on how to bring about that cultural change."

Troops have until Aug. 15 to complete the survey, which asks some 100 questions about how troops would feel serving alongside openly gay comrades or commanders. ("If 'Don't ask, don't tell' is repealed and you are working with a service member in your immediate unit who has said he or she is gay or lesbian, how, if at all, would it affect your immediate unit's effectiveness at completing its mission?" asks a typical question. The six multiple-choice answers range from "Very positively" to "Very negatively" and also include "No effect.") A second confidential survey, assessing how 150,000 family members feel about the prospective repeal, is slated for next month.

Congress passed "Don't ask, don't tell" in 1993 to thwart President Clinton's bid to lift a ban on gays serving openly. Until then, the White House had unilaterally barred open gays from serving in uniform. Under the 1993 law, recruits were no longer asked if they were gay ("don't ask"). They could serve so long as they kept their mouths shut about their private lives ("don't tell"). It was a crude compromise, which still allowed the military to kick out nearly 14,000 troops, including more than 400 last year while the nation was waging two wars.

But the public mood has shifted since 1993, when only 44% of the public supported openly gay men and women in uniform. It's now supported by 75%, according to a Washington Post poll. But never mind newspaper polls. Korb, the former Pentagon personnel chief now at the Center for American Progress think tank, is more concerned over what might happen if military surveys like this catch on. "Are they going to poll the troops on whether they want happy hours or discount cigarettes?" he asks. "Where does it stop — should we get out of Afghanistan?"