Steve Chapman

But if liberals are often indifferent to practical issues, conservatives sometimes refuse to let facts get in the way of ideology. The argument that gays destroy cohesion and discipline can be evaluated on the basis of evidence. And there is considerable information to suggest that though it may have been true at one time, it's not anymore.

A recent Harris Poll indicates that most Americans now think homosexuals should be allowed to serve without staying in the closet, with 55 percent in favor and only 32 percent opposed. Among those age 18-30 -- the chief recruiting pool -- 64 percent endorse that approach.

Of active-duty personnel, according to a Military Times poll, only 30 percent support accepting avowed gays. But even in the military, attitudes are malleable. Retired Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once supported don't-ask-don't-tell but has publicly changed his mind.

A Zogby poll found that three-quarters of those service personnel who had served in Afghanistan or Iraq are comfortable around homosexuals. Twenty-three percent of these troops say they know for certain that one of their colleagues is gay -- and two-thirds of this group say it doesn't hurt morale.

All this suggests that integrating openly gay people would be no harder than it was putting blacks or women into units that were segregated by race and sex. Gays are already serving ably in the ranks. And it's hard to see how junking don't-ask-don't-tell would cause much disruption. Nearly half of the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan know or suspect they have gay colleagues -- yet they apparently manage to dress, shower and work around them without getting the vapors.

Many of those soldiers evicted under the existing policy have vital skills that are hard to replace, such as fluency in Arabic or Farsi. At the same time the military is discharging gays, it is compelled to embrace ex-cons. That's the weird tradeoff we've chosen with don't-ask-don't-tell.

If the policy were only detrimental to gays, it might be justified. But right now, it looks like a policy billed as preserving military effectiveness that actually does just the opposite.

Steve Chapman

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

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