Data & Don’t ask don’t tell

Mary Eberstadt has an excellent article in Policy Review on the difficulties faced by military mothers and their children. Some of the statistics she cites are especially notable:

  • Around 40% of women on active duty have children
  • Approximately 10% of female service members at any given time are pregnant
  • About 30% of all female service members report being sexually harassed.
  • Only 8% of sexual assaults  in the military are prosecuted, compared to a 40% prosecution rate for similar civilian cases
  • Marriages of female recruits are three times as likely to fail as those of male counterparts
  • Maternal deployment is correlated with risk behavior among children: “While 75 percent of the adolescents exhibited no risk factors prior to deployment according to parental responses, just as many of the children engaged in risk behaviors during and after deployment.”

Eberstadt goes on to say:

The facts are these. With the obvious assent of the American people, as well as most of our political and military and other leaders, the United States military now routinely recruits mothers or soon-to-be mothers of babies and young children — and often puts them in harm’s way more or less as it does every other soldier. This is a practice so morally questionable, and in virtue of that fact so fraught with policy difficulties, that both its persistence and its apparent lack of controversy fairly beg for explanation. It is past time to ask the question: Why?

Liberalism has a habit of framing every issue in terms of fundamental rights. When any policy question is either a vindication of or an attack on some group’s basic rights, the consequences become unimportant. And so does data. There is no need to look at the statistics on the likely outcome of a given policy if we must enact it in order to vindicate a basic right.

Which brings me to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Eberstadt suggests that there isn’t a very good argument — just from the social-science data — for having mothers serve in the military. But by the same standard, there seems to be little reason not to permit gay service members to serve openly. What I’d really like to oppose is the rhetoric of rights that animates calls for the repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell.” When that reversal happens, a lot of people will hail it as a significant, if belated, victory for civil rights. I don’t deny that there are fundamental rights that need protecting, but serving in the military is not one of them. When we speak of repeal as an absolute demand of justice, rather than as a simple, sensible change in policy, we promote a view of politics that devalues data and complicates compromise.

I try to avoid contentious topics when making a first impression, but the blogosphere ain’t polite society. Nonetheless, please forgive me if I end my first post on the League with a few formalities: I am a recent college graduate currently working as a research associate at the Witherspoon Institute and as an editor of its online publication Public Discourse. I speak only for myself here. Oh, and you can call me Matt.

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28 thoughts on “Data & Don’t ask don’t tell

  1. Pah. “Standing armies.”

    Welcome aboard, by the way. If this post is any indication, I look to be delighted by your future stuff!

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  2. Aloha, Matt. Nice to meet you.

    When we speak of repeal as an absolute demand of justice, rather than as a simple, sensible change in policy, we promote a view of politics that devalues data and complicates compromise.

    I don’t know that I 100% agree with this. While I fully support the repeal of DADT, largely on the grounds that it is unjust to bar gays and lesbians from full participation as citizens of a country, I don’t think doing so represents any kind of disregard for data. Rather, what underscores the injustice of DADT is that there is a dearth of data that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would have a negative effect on military efficiency, cohesion, etc. (The same could be said for same-sex marriage and harms to “traditional marriage,” but I suppose that’s another post.) Those of us who argue for repeal on justice grounds would confront data if we had to, and our failure to discuss data reflects its lack rather than our unwillingness.

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  3. It’s a pleasure to meet you Matt.
    My own two cents on DADT; it’s important first of all to keep in mind that DADT doesn’t actually bar gays from serving in the military. It merely requires that they lie, both passively and actively when participating. They have to lie passively and by omission simply to remain in the service. They have to lie actively when the subjects of sex and partners and non-military life etc arise in their day to day service. DADT also allows lying outside of the military. It allows the country to lie about whether gays serve in the military. It allows government to lie about the patriotism and willingness to sacrifice of gay Americans.
    On principle DADT runs against the principles of integrity of honesty that the military purports to be one of their central principles. It cheapens the entire service, straight and secretly gay alike.
    In practice DADT is actively harmful to the service. The arab linguists who were drummed out are repeated ad nauseum in this discussion but that does not weaken the salience of their point. DADT does not only cost the military in terms of lost gay soldiers but also in terms of lost straight ones. It is easy for a service member who wishes to end their enlistment to plead gay and get discharged. I’ve actually read some conservatives advocate for this as a benefit of DADT (Rich Lowry for one).
    The only even remotely plausible objection I’ve ever read about DADT would be that it would harm unit cohesion. This strikes me as rather insulting to the intelligence of straight soldiers and the character of gay ones. Every story I’ve heard of military units is that the presence of gay soldiers quickly becomes evident. A straight soldier would have to be pretty willfully blind to not notice the soldier who either has no girl back home or has a girl who oddly seems to be vague or change identity and never writes. A gay soldier is not likely to suddenly explode with sparkle prism power once it’s okay to say “Hey yeah I’m gay”. I doubt we can anticipate any 3rd regiment of airborne drag reserves to be landing in Afghanistan trailing their camouflage boas and standard issue green sparkle pumps.
    The demise of DADT, which is praise be a near certainty now since both Gates and Powell have stuck the knife in, will pass not with much fanfare but only with the mildest changing of procedure. When soldiers talk about their wives at home others will be allowed to talk of their husbands (oops boyfriends or partners, haven’t crossed that bridge yet) without worrying about being heaved out of the service and having military collectors try and take back their signing bonus. The procedures against fraternization can be enforced the same way they are now. Business shall go on pretty much the same as usual except that thousands of soldiers who would have been otherwise persecuted now will not be. DADT will pass not with a roar or a whimper but likely with barely any noise at all and few will mourn its passing.

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  4. Hello, Matt. Glad to see another new contributor.

    I’m actually more interested in the first part of your post than the second. It seems that the statistics regarding women (and specifically, mothers) in the military would suggest a revisitation of that policy. How likely is that? Not very. The drive for so-called equality is too strongly embedded in American public policy.

    Which does bring me to the second part of your post: I think that same drive will bring about the end of DADT, whether statistics indicate beneficial effects or not. You mention you think there is very little reason for not allowing gays to serve openly in the military, but provide no statistics to back up that reasoning. Of course, Eberstadt has the “advantage” of dealing with a fait accompli, while DADT is still in force. That’s understood. However, there is some numerical data available: http://www.palmcenter.org/files/active/0/randstudy.pdf. It suggests openness to a change in policy in the military. You wrote, “When we speak of repeal as an absolute demand of justice, rather than as a simple, sensible change in policy, we promote a view of politics that devalues data and complicates compromise.” Yet you relied on speech, not figures.

    I’m always a proponent of getting the facts and figures about any proposed policy, with the proviso that we all know statistics can be molded to assist in a certain viewpoint. But, as noted above, facts and figures are not going to drive political decisions if social/political entropy or pressure wants to go in the opposite direction.

    As for whether DADT should be retired, I’m not sure, but I am less opposed to its removal than I am to mothers serving in the armed forces in combat zones, away from their (often) young children.

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  5. I’m curious where the normative aspect needs to come into a policy debate.

    Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is an interesting study in this area of substantive policy because its enactment was more or less based on normative values (i.e. gays are bad!) rather than data. So why should the repeal too be based on anything other than a normative judgment rather than a quantitative one?

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  6. Okay, now where I would agree with this is that calling something an innate right has the effect of ending the discussion and not in a really pleasant way. As for DADT, I’m not sure why we couldn’t get around this problem by just switching the argument to: “We’re in a two-front war. These people want to serve in the military. There have been pretty extensive studies of armed forces that have allowed gays to serve openly and they haven’t suffered the feared ill effects. And suggesting those ill effects would happen in the US military suggests that the US military is somehow significantly more prone to disorder and problems of cohesion than, say, the Canadian military, which seems far-fetched.”

    Also, I’m not sure this is typical of “liberalism” in the Democratic Party sense, or “Liberalism” in the Enlightenment sense that the country was founded on. For example, it’s not usually liberal Democrats who rally for gun rights, but I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a Second Amendment advocate say, “I think we need to take a serious look at what the homicide rates are like in countries with stricter gun laws than ours, and stop talking just about our rights”. It seems like you hear rights talk all the time in the US and in a lot of ways I think that’s something charming about Americans as such.

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    • Rufus — Your point about second-amendment advocates is certainly in keeping with my own. The idea that this is a specifically American way of seeing the world is really intriguing. Does anyone know of any texts or articles that compare the U.S. to other western countries on this point?

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  7. I agree with the general principle being espoused, but I think it is somewhat utopian: as Nob says, DADT was a policy based on arguments from values, not data. So to say that arguments for it’s repeal should be entirely based on data is like saying to a gay soldier drummed out of the service: “I’m not going to make rights-based arguments on your behalf, because I do not want to cheapen the discourse. Yes, our opponents use values-based arguments, and for many people they are the most effective ones, and DADT will probably hang on for a little longer because of this, but this will be the best for us, years from now. I hope you understand.” That’s a hard position to take when real human suffering is going on. And if you are going to refrain from those arguments, be prepared to lose a lot of policy battles in today’s politics, because many, many voters aren’t especially persuaded by facts over their emotions and sense of righteousness.

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  8. Liberalism has a habit of framing every issue in terms of fundamental rights. When any policy question is either a vindication of or an attack on some group’s basic rights, the consequences become unimportant. And so does data. There is no need to look at the statistics on the likely outcome of a given policy if we must enact it in order to vindicate a basic right.

    I am still searching for the argument in this paragraph, and not finding one. Some people claim that certain things must be enacted to comport with basic human and civil rights, and… what? If the argument is merely that sometimes this preference for human rights results in things that you don’t like (or, if you don’t like, are Objectively Bad), yeah, sure. That’s the Enlightenment for you, that’s liberal democracy for you. I’m not seeing much in the way of an actual argumentative apparatus in this post.

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    • Well it kind of ends the debate and not in a good way. If they don’t believe it’s a human rights issue then they are completely unpersuaded and don’t find your argument even remotely compelling. If they do think it’s a human rights issue then they’re already on your side.

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      • I don’t mean to beg the question; I’m open to some sort of data-driven consequentialist or utilitarian vision that disregards rights when there is enough data to compel us to do so. But it doesn’t seem to me that this post goes that far, and explicitly supports the idea of rights. Meanwhile, the argument that this isn’t really an issue about rights at all is a tack one can take, but I’m not seeing any defense of that idea here at all, merely annoyance with the consequences of the argument.

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        • I think I follow. My read was merely that the rights based arguments should be a last resort rather than a first and that even then should be used sparingly lest it become cheapened. See accusations of racism from the left for example or declarations of morality on the right.

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    • I like the contrast between your highlighted quote and this one from Mickey Edwards on why he’s not attending the CPAC convention:

      Today there are few things that set a “conservative’s” teeth on edge more than a defense of “civil liberties;” yet that is what American conservatism was all about–protecting the liberties of the people. It was a system designed to protect the people from an over-reaching government, not to protect the government from the people. American constitutionalism was a historical high-point in recognizing individual worth.

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    • Perhaps you’re right that my point may be only trivially true, more of an observation than an argument. Making such an observation might help us move past a couple of possible misconceptions, including the one that liberalism is somehow more “fact-based” than other political viewpoints.

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  9. The question of women in the military is a good one to pursue. To the new contributor: What would your proposed solution be? You could od a few things:

    1. Ask potential recruits whether they plan to have babies, and don’t accept recruits who do. (And deal later with the people who said “no babies” but end up pregnant anyhow.)
    2. Let anyone join, but boot them if they get pregnant.
    3. Don’t let women join the service.
    4. Put a quota on the number of women in the service and/or limit them to roles less impacted by a potential absence.

    I suppose there might be a few more options. But these are the ones that come immediately to mind. Which of these sound like good solutions to you? If you see other solutions, what are they?

    More importantly, is the motivating concern here the well-being of the women themselves? Their children? Or the military?

    I ask because this is an important point. If it’s the last of these, then why wouldn’t this apply to other organizations? It really sucks for a small business that employs five people when one or two of them go out on maternity leave. Should they not hire women based on that possiblility? SHould they be allowed to OPENLY not hire women on that basis? I think a lot of businesses have it as an unspoken policy. Is that better, or worse?

    What about a major corporation? If I am IBM and I employ 10,000 women between the ages of 24 and 40, thees a good chance a lot of those people are going to miss work tomorrow because they are pregnant or just had a baby.

    Should the military’s “importance” give it more leeway?

    Just wondering where you stand. You brought up an interesting question and never answered it completely. I’m curious.

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    • I don’t see it as being a major problem. Modern women with control over who/whether they sleep with anyone and relatively easy access to both contraception and abortions are fully in control of whether they have children. Personally I’d have no problem with a modified option #2 some sort of penalty for choosing to have children while in the military assuming that the pregnancy is going to impede their job performance in said military role of course. In the private sector women have children and go on maternity leave which makes sense since we as a society have decided to allow women to choose whether to be homemakers, breadwinners or try to do both. Of course a woman who’s off on maternity leave is going to miss opportunities to advance in their chosen career. Outside of some unreasonable wings of left feminism I haven’t heard much complaint of this system. Again it is their choice.

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    • Sam — Eberstadt herself suggests that if good minds get together, a solution will present itself. I’m not so sure, but I think the best approach is also probably the most generous one: allow women to serve and grant them at least 18 months of maternity leave, or whatever other figure is recommended by pediatricians in the future.

      The trickier thing is making sure that the current rules against women serving in combat roles are not gutted in practice. I don’t know how to do that. I do know that any worries about mothers facing fire should be accompanied by a not un-similar fear about putting fathers under the gun. Pacifism may be the simplest — if most impractical! — solution.

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  10. “Liberalism has a habit of framing every issue in terms of fundamental rights.”

    hmm, I’m going to need a working definition of “liberalism” here. This, according to liberal blogger Matt Yglesias, is the current mainstream liberal policy agenda:

    — A $1.2 trillion stimulus.
    — The forcible breakup of large banks.
    — Universal health care with a public option linked to Medicare rates.
    — An economy-wide cap on carbon emissions, with the permits auctioned.
    — Repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
    — A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
    — An exit strategy from Afghanistan.
    — An end to special exemption of military spending from fiscal discipline.
    — An independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency.
    — The Employee Free Choice Act.

    How many of these goals are rights-based, and how many are data-driven? Data-driven: the 3 financial proposals, and the carbon cap. Rights-based: DADT repeal, immigration reform, labor law reform. Mixed: health care reform, defense spending reform, end to Afghan war.

    In fact, it appears to me that much of the debate on the left over health care reform has been between the more rights-based side, arguing for single payor, and the data-driven side, arguing that sufficiently substantial insurance reform is adequate.

    As to why women serve in the military and in combat roles, it’s because they want to. There’s no draft; the women in these situations are there purely of their own volition. In a democratic society such as ours, the neutral position should be one of openness and inclusion; the denial of an opportunity to participate in government or compete for a government-offered job should require a very high standard of proof. Some may believe that the evidence proffered in this post is sufficient to deny our fellow citizens the opportunity to serve, but I don’t, especially since our government is (generally) reluctant to interfere with decisions about how families raise their children. (Which is usually a conservative rights-based argument.)

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    • I think the definition Matt has in mind here is the philosophical liberalism that Freddie alludes to above. Both conservatives and liberals in the American context are “liberal” in that sense.

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  11. Pingback: Blog Update « Plumb Lines

  12. What I am still not sure about is who we are supposed to be worried about here. Eberstadt writes:

    “the United States military now routinely recruits mothers or soon-to-be mothers of babies and young children — and often puts them in harm’s way more or less as it does every other soldier.”

    So is the problem the “routine recruiting”? Would it be OK to sign these people up if nobody had encouraged them to join the military? Is the idea that we put this idea in their poor heads, dangle some incentives and trick them into being soldiers? Is there concern that we are lying to these people, or underrepresenting the potential dangers? Or is the problem that we allow women in dangerous military service at all? Is that, inherently, a bad idea? Because they are women? Or because they are potential mothers? Would it be OK to routinely recruit sterile women, or women who would agree to go on the pill for the duration of their service?

    Or are we more concerned about the readiness of the military? That would seem to present a different set of potential solutions.

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  13. First off welcome.

    A couple of thoughts, the first is that I agree with Nob, I think a solid chunk of social legislation is passed because of normative values, which makes those values relevant in discussion of repeal.

    As something of a side note to a couple of comments’ discussion about DADT & repeal itself, I find it’s often overlooked the way the policy affects non-gays as well. Particularly women who are abused or harassed and then threatened with being “outed” as a lesbian. There’s a fair amount of comparative data that suggests repeal would not be a substantial problem. A fair amount of anecdotal evidence that repeal would be good. Also a sizeable body of anecdotal evidence that the policy does a significant amount of harm. Though it’s also worth noting that officially the US military is like Iran, there are no gays (except Dan Choi) because the ones we know about officially, we kick out. Which makes certain objective points of data difficult if not impossible to gather.

    I also think some arguments should be discussed within a normative sphere. Something need not be a right, for us to find discrimination invidious and that’s where I see DADT. It’s an area of discussion that isn’t data-driven but is also sub-rights.

    Culturally and politically, there’s so little incentive to argue in that zone, however. Data-driven points are great, you get to cloak yourself in the excellence of being “objectively right.” Also, rights talk is in the pantheon of nuclear level diction, along side a number of “-ists.” Suggesting something is a right is a useful framing tool, developmentally valuable (yay donations), and most unfortunately a maximalist arguing/negotiating position that can be beneficial.

    There’s a fair number of people who probably do believe in an expansive view of rights, or social entitlements as they ought to termed, but in the rhetoric wars, arguing that X ought to be done instead of arguing that you have a right to X being done looks like you aren’t committed or serious.

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  14. “I don’t deny that there are fundamental rights that need protecting, but serving in the military is not one of them. ”

    I’m late to this … sorry … just an old fashioned thought to chew on …
    Ref the statement above … there is a reason that blacks, Japanese Americans, women and gays all made or are making strong pushes to serve openly and effectively in the US military. I would submit that it is because to be a full citizen of this society one needs to be seen as being a part of a class that is willing and able to defend the society. Police service likely has a similar in its impact. Immigrant groups likely have similar motivations. I agree that there is no individual right to serve … and I’m not a fan of ‘group rights’ … on the other hand this effect seems to me to be real. I’d be curious about what y’all might make of it.

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