Steve Chapman

Thanks to the growing demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has had increasing trouble finding and keeping recruits. So it's had to lower its standards. How much? Since 2003, the number of convicted felons allowed to join has nearly doubled -- to 1,605 last year. The military has also welcomed nearly 44,000 enlistees convicted of serious misdemeanors. Going from an orange jumpsuit to desert camo must be a refreshing change.

But the Pentagon hasn't eliminated its standards entirely. You still can't serve your country if you have a thing for people of your own sex. And if you are secretly gay, you can be kicked out if your sexual orientation becomes known. Since 1993, more than 11,000 troops have been discharged under President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. If you were in the Army, would you rather bunk next to a homosexual or an ex-con?

This policy is now under scrutiny in Congress, with Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., sponsoring a bill to lift the restriction. It's an important issue that unfortunately is used as a proxy for broader goals. Liberals favor eliminating the ban on gay soldiers because they reject all discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Conservatives favor the ban as part of their general opposition to gay rights. Both tend to ignore the question of whether don't-ask-don't-tell helps or hinders the performance of the military.

As a general matter, it's hard to justify official discrimination against one group of people just because some individuals dislike them. We don't ban gays and lesbians from working as civil servants, government contractors, police officers, nurses or anything else.

But the military is different from normal jobs. One reason is that it serves the most critical function of government -- protecting the citizenry against enemy attack. Another is that it sometimes obligates people to live together in close quarters with minimal privacy around the clock. And you can't just up and quit if you get sick of the people you work with.

There has always been one plausible argument against letting homosexuals serve openly: that if heterosexuals feel deeply uncomfortable in close proximity to gays, the tension will compromise military effectiveness. The armed forces are not the place for experiments in social engineering. If the demands of safeguarding the nation conflict with principles of equality, then principles of equality may have to take a back seat.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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