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Don't-ask-don't-tell debate reveals generational differences in military

MinnPost Asks: Ronald Krebs

President Obama met with troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on Dec. 3.
REUTERS/Jim Young
President Obama met with troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on Dec. 3.

Washington's debate over repealing the ban on gays serving openly in the military pivots on a recent Pentagon survey. It showed that more than two-thirds of the troops would not object to gays and lesbians serving openly in uniform. But it also revealed key pockets of resistance — from Marines and soldiers in combat units and also from top generals in those forces.

University of Minnesota Professor Ronald Krebs has explored how and when the military's participation policies shape minorities' struggle for citizenship rights. He recently published the book "Fighting for Rights: Military Service and the Politics of Citizenship."


MinnPost asked Krebs to help put this current debate in perspective.

MinnPost: Can some of the differences in the don't-ask-don't-tell debate be explained by a generational divide?

Ronald Krebs:
It's not exclusively a generational divide. I think part of it is generational and that's why you see such a deep division between the views of the service chiefs and the average enlisted member.

MP: When you are talking about the average enlisted member, are you generally talking about younger service members?

RK:
Correct....But the service chiefs are people at the end of their military careers who have spent their entire adult lives in the Armed Forces. Generally, we are talking about people who are in their 50s, which means that they came of age on issues of sexual orientation 40 years ago.

MP: How does age and experience help shape the attitudes of those older chiefs?

Ronald Krebs
Ronald Krebs

RK: It means that they entered the military sometime around the Vietnam War era, precisely a time when the U.S. soldier was not held in such high esteem. Those who chose to make the military their career at the time tended to be from the more conservative elements of society. And specifically they tended to oppose any of the countercultural trends that were common at the time. So these are folks, really, whose attitudes towards homosexuality were deeply shaped by those experiences.

MP: Can you contrast that with the relevant experience of the average enlisted member?

RK:
The average enlisted member in the regular Army — as opposed to those in the reserves — is going to be relatively young. For them, even Ellen DeGeneres' coming out is something that is before their time. This is certainly the "Will & Grace" generation [referring to a TV sitcom featuring gay characters]. Not only that, but for them the kinds of stereotypes of gays that were common even for someone like me — and I'm now 36 — when I was growing up, those kinds of stereotypes are not really their image of a gay member of society. So the concerns they have are just very different.

MP: How does this generational explanation square with findings in the recent Pentagon survey that 58 percent of the Marines in combat units thought repealing the law would have a negative impact on the abilities of their units to work together?

RK:
That's why I say it is not exclusively generational. We do see that in the surveys conducted among the Marines and certain combat units in the Army. They are not in the same place as the rest of the military.

MP: How do you explain that?

RK:
Self selection. People who go into the Marines and go into the Army's combat units...obviously have to be admitted. But these are people who self consciously want to be part of a more macho environment. And so, it's not accidental that their views on gays in the military would look quite different from the rest of the Armed Forces.

MP: I spent two months embedded with Marines serving combat units in Iraq. These young people have to be among the most disciplined on earth, willing to risk anything in order to carry out a commanding officer's order. Doesn't this circle back? If the commanding officers were to say, "This is the way it's going to be!" wouldn't many of these highly disciplined Marines say, "OK. That's the way it is!"?

RK:
That's absolutely right. And that is why having the commanding officers on board is crucial....As we saw with the racial integration of the Armed Forces half a century ago, there needs to be buy in up and down the chain of command. And unless the chain of command has bought in, you will not have effective implementation. After [President] Truman ordered racial integration of the Armed Forces, the forces as a whole fight tooth and nail...What changed matters with regard to racial integration wasn't orders coming from the civilians...What changed matters was the pressure of the Korean War.

MP: How so?

RK:
When white soldiers in combat arms were killed on the Korean battle field there weren't enough other whites in combat arms to replace them. Now at that time blacks could serve in segregated support units. So, white commanding officers...went where they had the manpower. That is, they took black support soldiers and dragged them into combat alongside whites and stuck them into foxholes with whites. It was a tremendous success, but it was only possible because of the combination of the elimination of racial quotas, which could be done by civilians directly, and then the pressures of the Korean War. We don't have those pressures today. 

MP: We certainly have a military that is under pressure today, given the lengths of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have soldiers and Marines rotated again and again into long tours of duty in combat zones. So if the military were to lose gay members, that would hurt. But maintaining the ban doesn't necessarily lead to a loss of gay members as long as they keep quiet about their orientation. Correct?

RK:
Exactly. That's basically the status quo... .One thing we do know, though, is that for whatever reason a surprising number of the military's language specialists who know Arabic and Pashto — which are key languages for the places where the U.S. forces are currently deployed — happen to be gay. These are very rare sets of skills. Anybody who has the physical and mental qualifications for the military and speaks these languages should be attractive to the military. To eliminate them summarily from service because they are openly gay would really seem to be harming the effectiveness of the Armed Forces.

MP: Generational concerns aside, isn't this debate explained at least in part by politics, by certain politicians catering to the views of conservative voters?

RK:
Absolutely. My answer to your question about the generational divide didn't talk about the broader political spectrum.….Obviously, by the way, the officers in the military tend to be disproportionately politically conservative, disproportionately identifying with the Republican Party.

MP: What's your best guess on the prospects? Are we going to see the ban rolled back and see gays and lesbians allowed to serve openly?

RK:
No, not imminently in this current environment. And given the results of the November election, it is very unlikely that this will take place through means of legislation.…. It is more likely that it might take place through the legal system, through the courts. But neither the [Obama] administration nor the military wants to see that route.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (14)

There is absolutely zero chance that today's Supreme Court, with its majority of overtly activist conservatives will approve the repeal of DADT. In fact, they'd be MORE likely to declare its repeal by congress to be unconstitutional (but, of course, in an "only for this case," non-precedent-setting way).

Unless, of course, there would be massive financial benefit for their wealthy corporate friends on Wall Street, which would likely predispose them to find a way to make it happen (without any true regard for what the Constitution might or might not have to say about it).

As a non-white person and a veteran, I am continually astounded that otherwise intelligent people insist on comparing the integration of black people into the armed forces with integrating gay people.

Black men were barred from combat units because black people were barred from most of white society during Truman's time, including lunch counters and public drinking fountains. It wasn't because anyone questioned their manhood. I'm going to give you "experts" the benenfit of the doubt and say you're not racist, you're just inexperienced in military life.

The question is one of propriety. Ask yourself, if you were an 18-19 year-old girl, or the parents of one, would you like the idea that the government was forcing her to shower with and to share berthing with a group of men? Because by requiring straight men to shower and berth with openly gay men is the same thing. It's not right.

Conservative people, who have always been the backbone of the combat arms (it's certainly no bastian of liberalism) will resent it. And they'll resent it to the point where surveys show 25% or more will not re-enlist because of it, nor will they encourage anyone they know to consider joining the armed forces.

Oh, and those language experts? Hire civilians for that role. The military has dozens of jobs that civilians perform so the soldiers can be soldiers.

People don't have a "right to serve" any more than I had a right to be a submarine navigator.

"But it also revealed key pockets of resistance — from Marines and soldiers in combat units and also from top generals in those forces."

You mean soldiers that are actually soldiering; the guys who are carrying out the military's mission.

Got it.

Another great article that generates real areas for discussion. Mr. Tester's experiences and observations are important ones to be heard by those of us who are not male black veterans. And, perhaps even by those of us who are. I am grateful he made his comments. He, however, is not an 18 year old woman. Given the reported incidents of the rape of female soldiers by male soldiers, I would point out that showering and berthing together doesn't seem to be the only trigger point for sexual assault by ones fellow soldiers. And the fear of sexual assault is clearly not the central reason Marines and their commanders oppose the repeal of DADT. At least I hope they aren't that fearful. It is also my understanding that modern war has erased the boundaries between the "guys" carrying out military missions and everyone else serving in a theater of war. Everyone who wears a uniform or is a civilian contractor risks life and health to serve. And that is why DADT will be replaced with a more practical policy.

Letting homosexuals serve openly in the US armed forces would be a terrible step towards accepting all human beings equally. Where on earth would it lead? Sooner or later leftist-communist god-haters would be campaigning to allow blacks to mingle with whites, or even -God Forbid! - women to join the ranks on an equal basis. Clearly we must stand firm against this progressive satanist tide of evil that threatens our entire American way of life.

One of the many reasons normal people despise liberals is because total ignorance of a subject doesn't prevent them from sharing their uninformed opinion as if it had value.

While its unlikely that DADT will be repealed anytime soon, just like the gay marriage debate, it is only a matter of time, perhaps 5 years, perhaps longer. The figures don't lie, this is a generational debate, with younger Americans overwhelming supporting both gay marriage and the repeal of DADT. It's just unfortunate that gay Americans have to wait until the older generation dies off before these changes can be enacted.

Dennis,
As a combat veteran myself, I find your disrespect for our soldiers disgusting. How dare you speak for today's military?

We have the most professional forces in the world, yet you think they are not disciplined enough to handle what almost all our NATO allies can handle?

This is not your undisciplined Army Dennis. My father, who is a purple heart awardee with the 4th ID in Viet Nam, would also find your views disgusting, and non-representative.

Our soldiers will not lose moral, discipline, or good order. We're better than you were Dennis. We're better than that. If all the our allies can serve with gays without losing it, why don't you think we can Dennis?

Dennis, a willingness to spout off uninformed ignorant opinion as if it has any value is hardly an exclusive trait of liberals. Simply listen to the rantings of anti-evolutionists, for starters.

Mr Tester, your first comment had a place in this discussion. Most of us who bothered to read the article are interested in learning more about this issue. Opinions generated by actual experiences different from ones own experiences always have value to a learner. However, I am offended by your second comment: "why normal people despise liberals . . ." I now doubt that you are who you say you are; none of the veterans I know would pollute a genuine discussion of an important issue with trite comments repeated from talk radio. If you are going to be offensive, at least be original.

One of the reasons so many of us despise a certain class of people is that, when others disagree with those people, they take it personally and feel enraged that we have the audacity not to take their one, single, personal point of view as representative of reality, the further audacity to consider other perspectives than their own and come to other conclusions than they have reached.

I'm sorry for whatever has wounded these people to the extent that they are so hypersensitive to disagreement with them, but that hypersensitivity is a problem that they need to address. To expect the rest of the world and all the people around them to walk on tiptoe in order not to offend their tender sensibilities is to ask those other people to be co-dependent with their dysfunctions.

I.E. it's asking too much of those around you and generally leads to broken relationships which are generally blamed on those who bailed rather than continue to be co-dependent.

You're certainly entitled to your opinion Alec. I would hope you will at least admit that it's in the minority amongst combat vets.

Here are some results from the recent Pentagon poll that you didn't read in the mainstream press. Note that these results are not from my generation, but yours.

Q45. Impact of Gay Leadership. If you had a leader who you believed was gay or lesbian: 9% positive, 91% negative or mixed impact on unit's performance.

Q68. Unit Trust. 85% of Marine Combat Arms, 75% of Army Combat Arms, 64% overall say Negative, Very Negative, or Mixed impact on unit trust if DADT is repealed.

Q90. Open showers. 29% would take no action if assigned open showers with homosexuals. 71% would shower at other times, complain to leadership or chaplains, don't know or do "something else" [including violence].

Q81. Leave the Service. 24% will leave the military or think about leaving sooner than planned. That's one half million troops who would leave the service early.

Q80. Recommending Military Service. 6% will positively recommend service to others after repeal. 94% feel negative, mixed, no effect, or don't know about recommending military service to others. (Recruitment implications)

Q66. Impact on Combat Performance. How will open homosexuality impact combat performance. 9% positive, 91% negative or mixed impact.

Q71. Open homosexuality at sea. 11% feel positive or very positive about permitting open homosexuality in field environment or at sea. 60% negative or mixed. 19% no effect.

Q73. Impact on Morale. 5% say repeal would positively boost morale. 41% say negative or mixed impact morale. Rest no effect or don't know.

Methinks Alec doth protest *too* much!

We have civilian leadership of the armed forces for a good reason, and I am another veteran who agrees with the President and Secretary Gates on this issue.

Hey, Maz, Swiftee. Long time no chat. Anchors Aweigh!