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.
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.