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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Just Argue

The Dec. 5 edition of ABC’s “This Week” played host to a heated discussion about the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” legislation. Claims pinged back and forth regarding the recent Pentagon investigation of troop attitudes toward the law. But we caught several people putting the wrong figures with the wrong questions, or otherwise misrepresenting the results.

First, Gen. Wesley Clark misrepresented how many service members thought having an openly gay colleague would not affect their combat performance:

Clark: And what the survey showed is that essentially all of the service members, 92 percent, agree that they could serve — they could serve in a unit in combat, and they could work together effectively, and it wouldn’t compromise mission readiness.

In fact, of respondents with deployment experience since Sept. 11, 2001, 69.5 percent said that having openly gay coworkers would have a positive effect, no effect, or equal positive and negative effects in an “intense combat situation.” For other combat scenarios, the numbers were even lower. Respondents who hadn’t been deployed in the past 9 years were a bit more optimistic – about 80 percent thought having an openly gay unit member would have a positive, mixed or no effect. Outside of a combat situation, 70.4 percent of respondents anticipated that repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell" would have a positive, mixed or no effect on how well a unit worked together, and 78.8 percent thought it would have a positive, mixed or no effect on the unit’s immediate readiness.

Clark was referring to a question put to a subset of respondents, those who said they had served with someone they believed was gay. Of those, 92 percent reported a positive, mixed or no effect on unit effectiveness. But that number is quite different from the number who felt they could work with an openly gay unit member in the future. And on the whole, troops who had served or were serving with someone they believed to be gay had a higher estimation of the effects of repeal. On the "intense combat situation" question, for instance, 73.9 percent of respondents who thought they were currently serving with a gay person predicted a positive or neutral effect, versus 66.9 percent of those who said they were not serving with a gay person.

Tammy Schultz, Marine Corps War College director of national security and joint warfare, also didn’t quite have the right number to match the survey question she described.

Schultz: And the survey shows that 84 percent of Marine combat veterans who worked with somebody who were gay or lesbian said it did not affect their ability to get the job done.

Schultz, who is also a proponent of repeal, is probably referring to the percentage of troops in Marine combat arms units (infantry, armor and artillery) who said that a unit in which they served with someone they believed to be gay had a good or neutral ability to work together. That number is 84 percent. But only 46.2 percent of total Marines who believed that someone they served with in combat was gay or lesbian said that situation had affected unit performance “not at all.” About 48 percent said it had affected performance “a lot,” “some” or “a little” – but only half of those said the effect was mostly negative. The others said that it was positive or mixed.

When asked to assess their unit’s performance, however, 95.6 percent of Marines who had at some point been in combat with a suspected gay service member said that unit performance was good, very good, or neither good nor bad.

Schultz was more accurate later in the program:

Schultz: Well, I think it’s important to point out that, although the Marine Corps was the least supportive of the services, there was still out of those surveyed 60 percent that said this isn’t a big issue. … Now, I do appreciate that the combat service numbers, the combat arms were less supportive. However, when you take away the stereotypes and you ask them about actual experience of dealing with somebody who believe they — they believe to be gay or homosexual or lesbian, overwhelmingly the numbers were positive.

Schultz is right that 60 percent of Marines, on average, thought that various aspects of service would be positively affected, not affected, or affected both positively and negatively by repeal. Marine combat arms personnel, by contrast, averaged 46 percent on the same questions. But of Marine respondents who had served with someone they and others in their unit believed to be gay or lesbian, 90.4 percent said that their unit’s performance was very good, good or neutral; 88.1 percent said the same of unit cohesion; and 83.4 percent of unit morale. Numbers were similar for Marines who had served under a leader they thought was gay or lesbian.

And Schultz’s assessment of the effects of stereotyping accords with the conclusions drawn by the study’s authors. They write:

Pentagon report, Nov. 30: When Service members talk about a unit member they believe to be gay or lesbian, their assessment of that individual was based on a complete picture and actual experience, including the Service member’s technical and tactical capabilities and other characteristics that contribute to his or her overall effectiveness as a member of the military and as a colleague.

By contrast, when asked about serving with the imagined gay Service member who is “open” about his or her sexual orientation …[s]tereotypes motivated many of the comments we heard.

Repeal opponent Elaine Donnelly, founder and president of the Center for Military Readiness, misrepresented the makeup of the study, and did some cherry-picking with her claim about Marines’ attitudes:

Donnelly: And people who do clerical work at the Pentagon may have a view that that’s not going to affect me, but the combat troops are the ones who matter.

In the Army combat troops and Marines, the infantry, and the Marine Corps combat troops in general, 57 percent, 67 percent opposed. Those — those troops said that there would be a negative effect.

Donnelly’s characterization of the non-combat respondents as “people who do clerical work at the Pentagon” is inaccurate. All troops currently in Iraq, for instance, are non-combat troops. And the numbers she cites are not from Marine Corps "combat troops" — i.e. troops currently in combat — but combat arms troops (infantry, armor and artillery). The Pentagon confirmed for us that "combat arms" is a job description that is irrespective of deployment status, so troops described as "combat arms" might not be in combat currently.

And while Marine Corps combat arms troops were without a doubt the most pessimistic about the effects of repeal, the numbers only reached the heights Donnelly cites in one scenario. When Marine combat arms personnel were asked about a unit’s effectiveness “in a field environment or out at sea,” 67 percent said that the presence of openly gay service members would negatively affect performance. But in a different scenario, “an intense combat situation,” only 48 percent predicted a negative effect. Donnelly’s “67 percent opposed” figure comes from the highest-opposition question in the highest-opposition group represented in the survey.