Harms to Reputation

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As election day nears it may be more clear now than ever how reputation works to generate political currency for politicians. The kinds of action the president can take correlates to the kind of collective political will the president's public image has generated. This is all the more evident while presidents are candidates, when reputation will determine who gets to become leader of the executive branch and ultimately take action. While there are certainly factors beyond reputation that impact governance, this political season serves as a healthy reminder about just how significant reputation can be.

This holds true for the military. It's might is only as strong as the political will behind it. In January, the Palm Center's Dr. Aaron Belkin, published an article in the journal Armed Forces & Society on the military's reputation and how the "don't ask, don't tell" policy undermines the Pentagon's efforts to manage it.

It is important to consider the impact of "don't ask, don't tell" on the military's reputation for the reasons Belkin points out: while the Pentagon spends close to $600 million on marketing, the policy is out of step with public opinion, prompts media criticism, supports antimilitary protest, and is contrary to the needs of the service members it is expected to protect. But I want to suggest that at this moment in history, there may be even more at stake.

As this presidential election cycle reminds us, reputation isn't a one way street. How we view someone is connected with what values we hold dear, and how we understand ourselves. When it comes to the impact of "don't ask, don't tell" on the military's reputation it depends on what the military represents, what it means and what we think it means to others; and these are things that appear to be in flux.

For instance, Belkin points to several polls reflecting a shift in public and military opinion regarding gays and lesbians. In particular one poll revealed that a majority of service members are comfortable around gays and lesbians while that same majority believes they are more comfortable than their peers. But BOTH cannot simultaneously be true. "This finding seems to indicate that there is a cultural-organizational pressure within the armed forces to appear as though one is either uncomfortable with or intolerant of homosexuality, but that underneath the performance, service members are in fact comfortable with their gay peers." In addition, only 17.5 percent of a sample representing new recruits are proud as a result of "don't ask, don't tell," while 56 are neutral.

This marked neutrality alongside the contrast (and contradiction) between personal comfort and the perception of peers suggests that the values and meaning attributed to the military are in flux. The impact of "don't ask, don't tell" on the military's $600 million dollar reputation depends, as it turns out, on how we understand ourselves. While most of us understand ourselves as more tolerant than our neighbors, we ultimately are the neighbors we imagine - cautiously glancing from side to side while we try to fill in the gap between "me" and "we."

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