What's Germane Is a Soldier's Behavior

Robert MacCoun is a social psychologist and professor of public policy and law at UC Berkeley. Steven Schlossman, who teaches history at Carnegie Mellon University, is coauthor of "Foxholes and Color Lines: Desegregating the U.S. Armed Forces" (Johns Hopkins University, 1998)

Reignited by the brutal slaying of a gay soldier at Ft. Campbell, Ky., the controversy over gays in the military threatens to become as combative an issue at the end of the Clinton administration as it was at the beginning. In recent weeks, the president, vice president and first lady have separately criticized the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen has authorized an investigation of its enforcement.

There is an alternative. In 1993, we were members of an interdisciplinary Rand Corp. research team commissioned by President Clinton's then-secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, to determine whether it would be possible to end the ban on homosexuals serving in the military "in a manner that is practical, realistic and consistent with the high standards of combat effectiveness and unit cohesion our armed forces must maintain." The team concluded that it was possible and recommended to the administration a policy that, in effect, declared one's sexual orientation "not germane" to military service.

Under this policy, all service members would have been held to the same behavioral standards. Inappropriate conduct, such as explicit discussions of sexual practices or desires, physical or verbal abuse based on sexual orientation or public displays of affection, would have been designated as unprofessional and subversive of good order and discipline. This code would have applied to heterosexuals and homosexuals alike.

We believe that this conduct-based policy merits serious consideration. Such a policy would require firm leadership, but it would not require sensitivity training, extensive revisions to military regulations or personnel policies or even changes of attitudes regarding homosexuality--so long as the military insisted on strict compliance by all service members--gay and straight.

Would this "not germane" policy undermine cohesion or degrade military performance? We searched widely but found no compelling evidence that it would. To be sure, hostility toward homosexuals is apparent among many active service members, and doubtless this would continue. Nonetheless, a nondiscrimination policy can be enforced without seriously interfering with military order and effectiveness.

We believe this because we examined dozens of empirical studies, both published and unpublished, of team cohesion and performance in military units, industrial and sports teams and other groups. We also analyzed the political and organizational process by which African Americans were integrated into the military in the 1940s and 1950s, despite tenacious racial animosities among service personnel and vigorous opposition by military leadership. Further, we investigated how nondiscrimination policies for gays and lesbians are working in practice in U.S. police and fire departments and in Israeli and European military forces. Too often, this evidence is dismissed as irrelevant, without serious consideration or refutation.

Indeed, a wealth of evidence, including the military's own research, debunks the claim that gays would irreparably damage "task cohesion." Liking all the members of one's group on an interpersonal level--"social cohesion"--either has no measurable influence on performance or, at very high levels, actually may have a detrimental impact. In short, the military learned long ago that professionalism does not require you to like someone to work effectively with him or her.

Further, the experience of American urban police and fire departments suggests that even when allowed to do so, few gays and lesbians choose to "come out of the closet" in a setting of widespread intolerance. Most prefer to avoid incurring the kind of prejudice that will interfere with their career goals.

Covertly and overtly, gays always have served in the U.S. military, and they will continue to do so, whatever the official policy. Yet any policy that makes sexual orientation conspicuous, while also implying official intolerance of homosexuality, is a sure-fire recipe for continued conflict and controversy.

"Don't ask, don't tell" may have seemed an artful compromise when it was enacted, but it heightened rather than neutralized fears about sexual orientation in the military. A conduct-based policy that applies equally to all service members and that treats sexual orientation as not germane to military service would reduce the salience of sexual preference while eliminating the appearance of tacit approval of hostility toward gay men and women in the armed forces.

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