"Don't ask, don't tell" and the military's social contract
Last month, the U.S. Senate voted 65 to 31 to repeal the 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy that prohibited gays from openly serving in the military. The Senate vote sent the repeal bill to President Barack Obama, who eagerly signed it into law. The focus now shifts to the Defense Department, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates promising to implement the repeal "as quickly, but as responsibly, as possible." Successful implementation will require a renewed commitment by all to the military's traditional social contract.
Much of the credit for the unexpectedly large Senate majority in favor of repeal may go to a 410-page research report on DADT prepared by the Rand Corp. The report, a 2010 update of a 1993 study Rand had done for the government, was prepared at the request of both the administration and the Senate Armed Services Committee. The report reviewed recent research on group dynamics in military units, conducted surveys and focus groups of current U.S. service members, and studied the experience of other Western countries (with combat experience) that had similarly lifted restrictions on open gay service in their military forces. Senators seemed encouraged by the report's conclusions: Rand predicted that lifting the U.S. ban would have negligible consequences on U.S. military recruiting, retention, unit cohesion, and combat effectiveness. In fact, the authors predicted that the Defense Department will have an easier time adjusting to the end of DADT than it has had adjusting to the widening role of women in the military.
Of particular concern has been what the repeal might mean for unit cohesion, or the ability of small groups of soldiers to form trust and cooperate on critical tasks during stressful situations. Social scientists studying military effectiveness have long concluded that cohesion among members of small units is an essential requirement for battlefield success. The updated Rand study concluded that "task cohesion" -- the commitment of soldiers to the unit's goals -- is a better predictor of small-unit combat effectiveness than "social cohesion," or how much members of the group like each other and prefer to spend social time together. Based on its research, Rand predicted that lifting DADT would not significantly impair the ability of U.S. military units to achieve high levels of task cohesion and therefore battlefield success.
Rand's sanguine predictions concerning the repeal of DADT imply a renewed commitment by all service members to the military's traditional social contract. Under this contract, individuals who join the service agree to forfeit a portion of their individual autonomy and eagerly work hard at achieving the unit's goals. The other side of the military's social contract is the responsibility of the military's leaders to set high standards, to enforce the rules fairly, to assess subordinates based on merit, and to ensure that soldiers who fulfill their part of the bargain are treated with respect. Based on their research, Rand's analysts assume that U.S. service members will agree to this long-standing social contract after the end of DADT. That seems like a reasonable assumption, but it will require the goodwill of all to make it a reality.